Often, challenges pave way for opportunities, and Bhibhu Sahu’s story is a testament to that.
Originally a primary school teacher, Bhibhu, a rice mill owner from Kalahandi in Odisha, quit his job in 2007 to start a paddy business. Carrying on rice trading for the next few years, he decided to enter the rice mill business in 2014 and was selling rice commercially by 2016.
But rice mills produce large amounts of rice husk, which is usually burned in the open and is hazardous to the environment, in turn adversely affecting health. To solve this problem, Bibhu began exporting the rice husk ash to steel companies across the globe, and now earns lakhs from it.
“Kalahandi is the second-largest producer of rice in Odisha and produces around 50 lakh quintals annually. There are over a dozen para boiling companies who treat rice in mills, and the quantity or husk generated is enormous,” he says.
He adds that his mill generates around 3 tonnes of rice husk every day. “The husk is conveniently dumped outside, and blows away with the wind, causing breathing and vision issues. Many residents in the neighbourhood began complaining about the problem,” says Bhibhu who now runs Haripriya Agro Industries.
A long struggle
When the number of complaints increased, Bhibhu started packing the husk and filled the godown. However, he was falling short on space.
“I conducted some research, during which I learned that rice husk can be used as a thermal insulator for steel industries. It has 85% silica, and hence, becomes a good product to use in steel refractors,” he says, adding that when the ash is used in boilers, it does not result in much pollution, due to high temperatures.
In 2018, Bhibhu visited a steel company in Egypt, and presented his proposal with a sample. “I explained to them the process of its formation, and how it was a by-product of rice mills. They seemed interested, and asked if this can be made available in powder form. I told them this would be difficult, as the dust could blow away with the wind. After thorough discussions, it was concluded that the ash would be converted into balls and then exported,” he says.
However, this presented a new challenge. “I didn’t know how to make pellets out of rice husk ash, so I called experts from Maharashtra, Gujarat, West Bengal, and some other states. But no one could help me,” he says. Bibhu says he also approached a poultry company to understand the process of making pellet food. But this too, was in vain.
Across the globe
Watch how rice husk pellets are formed.
Over the next few months, Bhibhu exhausted all resources in his research. “I gave up, thinking the concept would never materialise. However, around that time, one of my staff members asked for some time to come up with a solution. He went to his native village and brought back four people. Together, we conducted some experiments using their knowledge of natural material, and the pellets were finally produced,” he adds.
Bhibhu says it took a few weeks to standardise the pellets and get the desired size. Once they were ready, he began approaching steel companies in various countries, offering rice husks that were between 1 mm and 10 mm in size. “I wrote emails to companies in France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. The first consignment went to Saudi Arabia in January 2019,” he tells The Better India.
The companies preferred this product, because the pellets burned uniformly, did not emit smoke, were less costly and lost less heat, as against the other products they were using. Moreover, they were easy to handle and were feasible in terms of transportation and logistics. “I earned Rs 20 lakh from the exports in 2019 by selling 100 tonnes of rice husk pellets,” he says, adding that the venture turned this husk into black gold.
Bhibhu says sales have dropped dramatically owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he could only send consignments in the months of June and December in 2020. “No good business happened in the last year, and I hope the business sees a revival in 2021,” he says.