OPINION: A cry for the sugar industry

OPINION: A cry for the sugar industry

File image of a sugarcane farm.

Six months into Kenya's fifth administration, I know not who is more disillusioned than sugarcane farmers. My attempts to cross-reference any mention of the sugar sector by this administration reveal little, if any.

Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Franklin Mithika Linturi has traversed this nation in the period he has been in office. He has, both at Kilimo house and in the field, issued various decrees in the sector. I'm convinced that the sugar sector file is yet to be presented to him.

History, and I use the term deliberately, shows that the sugar industry was once a major employer and source of livelihood in the Western region (what was Nyanza and Western provinces). Nostalgic tales are told of how sugarcane farmers fed, clothed and schooled their families from their earnings. Employment in any of the State-run sugar mills was the perfect cream to ones ambition. It paid well and offered it's staff generous welfare packages.

In their manifesto dubbed 'The Plan', Kenya Kwanza made lofty promises to the agriculture sector. Reading through the document as I have become used to, the plan is clear. On page 12 of the document, the drafters insist that ‘the case for investing in agriculture, as the sector that will lead the economic recovery, is predicated on seven factors.’

These factors include, quick turnaround, cost of living, jobs, ending poverty, industrialization, growing incomes and foreign exchange. This is iced with a commitment to pump Ksh.250 billion in the sector over the next five years.

I have had the robust plans for the tea and coffee sectors. The committee set up by government and chaired by the Deputy President to revitalize the two sectors. The maize sector has had a boost, the last being NCPB increasing cost of buying a 90kg bag of the produce. The fish industry has had a major leap with no less than Ksh.1 billion set aside by Cabinet to go to fish fingerlings production.

But like the mills that have gone silent over the years as the machines gather dust and rust, the administration is yet to speak loudly and boldly on the sugar sector. Maybe it is a case of a deliberate plan to ‘off’ the industry.

In the post handshake administration of Uhuru Kenyatta, attempts were made. A taskforce was formed, chaired by the Ministry of Agriculture and Council of Governors’ representatives. A report was developed, launched and stored! Not even the tough talking CS Peter Munya could move a muscle to save the sector.

I hope the renovations I heard happened at State House wiped the report off the shelves. It (the taskforce) like many before fingered the problem, offered solution, but that was the last we saw.

Attempts to lease out the mills, an ambitious but doable plan became a subject of litigation. Many law suits were filed in court as soon as potential lessors were shortlisted. The stalemate remains with ‘brokers’ being blamed despite courts order to consolidate the suits.

If you thought the state of the government-owned mills were deplorable, then you have not met the sugarcane farmers. Pain, anguish, depression least describes their state. To many this has been the belle of the ball. Their only source of income and pride. They give it their all. Dedicate time and dwindling resources, hoping for better.

Year after year, many farmers trot to their graves owed millions of shillings by the millers. Debt, that even managers of the mills know not, how they will pay. While still urging frail farmers to supplie more cane.

In the gap has stood private millers with grand promises! Taking advantage of the farmers premised on prompt payment.

The sugar sector has lost its sweet allure. Supermarkets and retail shelfs are filled with brands unknown to Kenya, some not even by Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) and Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS).

Someone, somewhere, should do something. I doubt if that someone is the Kenyan government!


Agriculture CS Mithika Linturi Farmers Sugarcane

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