Hard Pressed

10 min read
15 Jul 2016
10 min read
1831 words
The centuries-old Khokana oil pressing tradition’s carrying on now depends on just two traditional oil mills and on a depleting pool of customers
The centuries-old Khokana oil pressing tradition’s carrying on now depends on just two traditional oil mills and on a depleting pool of customers 

But most days Bhim Lal is not busy making oil trips, and once done with his household chores, he sits with other villagers in a pati, sipping tea and reminiscing about the time he worked in the nearby oil mill. The oil mill beside the pati was then called Nhusha Oil Mill and was one among four other community-run mills in Khokana. Until a few decades ago, members from each and every household in the village used to work in these mills, pressing oil and sourcing mustard from trips to other villages as far as Phakhel, in Makwanpur, Naubise and Malekhu, among others, in exchange for mustard oil. Ever since he was 16, Bhim Lal, like many other people in the village, worked in the oil mills, as did his father before him and his father’s father before that.

Today, however, the constant grinding sounds of gears turning in the kolu, a traditional wooden oil press, that used to reverberate through the thick, pungent air in Khokana do not come from all four corners of the village. Of the four community mills, only two still stand in Khokana today: one is Sikali Multipurpose Cooperative, which is run by a cooperative of the same name, and the other, called Gabu Jaaysha is run privately by Kancha Maharjan. The age-old Khokana oil-milling tradition now is sustained by these oil mills, which cater to a depleting pool of customers. The mills are doing all they can to keep the tradition alive.

According to Satya Mohan Joshi, Nepal’s preeminent historian, the oil-milling tradition in Khokana started some time during the Malla period. In the village too, it is believed that oil-milling started around then. There seem to be no exact records as to when the four community mills started. But everyone in the village does know when the oil-production trend in Khokana started changing, for the worse.

Some three decades ago, owing to the competition in the oil market brought about by packaged mustard oil such as Dhara and other vegetable oils made from soybeans and sunflowers, the popularity of Khokana’s mustard oil declined considerably. By then, packet oils had already flooded the market, and that wave swept with it the customers who had long been buying mustard oil. Customers could get these other oils easily at the shops near where they lived, and they preferred these oils because they were cheaper and lighter compared to the pure mustard oils. Mass-produced in automated factories, these oils come at a fraction of the price of Khokana’s traditionally produced oil, and Khokana couldn’t compete with them both in terms of price, and production and supply.
In the beginning, a large portion of Sikali mill’s revenue stream came from their selling mustard cakes rather than from selling the oil itself
By the time Nhusha oil mill got restarted, even the villagers in Khokana had already grown used to cooking with the mustard and soybean oils that came in packets. After remaining non-operational for nine years, the mill was re-established in 2009, as Sikali Multipurpose Cooperative Ltd. “The first few years were particularly difficult,” recalls Siddhisaran Maharjan, vice-president of the Sikali Multipurpose Cooperative and the manager at the mill. “It took us some time to get used to adapt to our modern oil-milling equipment, and to market and distribute the product after having lost so many customers to the changes wasn’t easy either.” In the beginning, a large portion of the mill’s revenue stream came from their selling mustard cakes as fertiliser and livestock feed, rather than from selling the oil itself.

But after six years of operation, things have started to get slightly better for the mill. Every day, batch after batch of mustard is roasted on an open hearth and is then is pressed in the kolu and in the modern oil-press that run in unison from nine to five. One of the workers is busy turning the kolu’s gear, which is attached to a shaft that connects to two horizontal wooden logs and brings them closer together to press the ground and roasted mustard. The oil, which drips from a small opening in the middle of the two logs, is then collected in a metal container. “The mill today makes an annual turnover of some five to six lakhs,” says Siddhisaran.

The profit from oil production in Khokana, however, is still far from satisfactory. The mills have to import mustard from various parts in Nepal such as Chitwan and Dang, and from India too, at around Rs 85 per kilogram. Labour too has been a problem. The newer generation in Khokana prefers to work in other sectors such as pottery and construction because it makes more monetary sense for them to do so. And people who are getting educated will obviously be more inclined to work in professions matching their qualification, rather than working at the mill. Out of the six or seven people who work at each mill, two of them hail from outside Khokana, from places such as Makwanpur.

The investment that goes into labour and raw material, and the lack of economy of scale means that the mills can neither produce nor sell the oil at cheaper rates—one litre of Khokana’s mustard oil is priced at Rs 250 or more, whereas the same amount of soybean or sunflower oil costs around Rs 150. “I can’t decrease the price of the oil we produce at our mill to compete with them even if I wanted to,” says Kancha Maharjan of Gabu Jaaysha. The problem with not being able to mass produce also means that the mills can’t produce enough oil to meet the demand that is still there. The demand today comes from a niche group—families who have been using mustard oil for cooking for years.

Mustard oil is popular among Newar families for making dishes such as saag, salads, choila and bara among others. Due to the high smoking point of mustard oil, its viscosity, and its low polysaturated fatty acid content, it has long been the preferred choice for cooking, over other lighter oils such as soybean and sunflower oil. “For people who are used to the strong, smoky taste of pure mustard oil, it is difficult to get used to cooking with other oils,” says Kancha. Another popular use for the oil is for massaging infants and new mothers. “And it is these customers who keep coming back and who make up a large percentage of our total customer base.” 

Kancha leased Gaabu Jaaysha three years ago from the community members, to run it for ten years on his own. He rebuilt sections where the bricks had come loose and got a new tin roof for the dilapidated single-storey structure. Kancha’s was not the first, but has been the only successful, attempt at giving a new life to the mill; numerous interventions were made in the past to bring the mill back into operation. In 1999, UNESCO built a separate, new structure for the mill right beside where it previously stood. The community too, from time to time, has made repairs to the building and the oil-pressing machines. But despite all the efforts, the mill had remained shut for 30 years  before Kancha came along.Unfortunately, the other two mills, unlike Gabu Jaaysha and the Sikali cooperative, have had no takers to restart them. 

Rebuilding the closed mills and building new ones inside KHOKANA WOULD REQUIRE A LOT OF CAPITAL
At the place where Nyabhusha Oil Mill once stood, today there are just wooden logs lying on the bare ground. The logs were parts of the wooden press that once used to run all day at the mill. But that was 15 years ago. Spread on the logs these days are straw mats, which serve as low benches on which villagers sit to take in the sunlight. Propped up against a wall of an old house in another corner of the otherwise empty field are the mill’s gears and shaft. Walls are all that remain of another mill, Kutpukhasha, which was shut  down some 15 years ago. The mill’s clay-tile roof caved in a long time ago, and because of the decreasing demand of mustard oil, their inability to compete, and the lack of resources, the villagers didn’t think of repairing the roof, or the mill. Today, to revive it would need more than just a repair job: As if in resignation, the villagers have stacked the mill’s clay tilesand the bricks in perfect arrays outside what was once the door to the mill. Inside, the oil presses have completely disappeared beneath kneehigh weeds.

“Rebuilding the closed mills and building new ones inside Khokana would require a lot of capital,” says Ganga Lal Dangol, ward secretary of Karyabinayak Municipality. And  given the competition, villagers are sceptical about such investments providing enough returns. “The chances  of the tradition’s disappearing with time cannot be ignored,” says Ganga Lal. “Some hope, however, comes  from those people from Khokana who have set up mills outside the village, in nearby areas like Bhaisepati, and from the two mills that are still running  in the village.”

Of those two, Gabu Jaaysha, however, doesn’t look like it is still going to be in operation for too long. From his experience of running the mill, Kancha has understood that it’s not going to be easy for him to keep competing in the market. “So will I renew the lease seven years from now when it expires?” he asks. “Probably not.”