How corruption, greed and broken services ruined glowing sectors

A cane farmer at Emulundu village in Lurambi.
A collapsed farmer extension service system, corruption and in some instances downright greed of those entrusted with this key docket remain the biggest threats to agriculture.

The sugar sub-sector, once a thriving source of income in Western, Nyanza and parts of Coast, has been on a downhill trend since the turn of the century. From employing close to 80,000 people, according to data from the Kenya Sugar Board, the industry now employs less than 8,000 people.

Mismanagement of the sugar factory, lack of allocation of funds to crop’s research and development as well as a lack of proper policies in the management and regulation of the industry have all led to the collapse of the sub-sector.

Decades later, the industry is creaking under its own weight.

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In 2012, the Kenya Sugar Board, which was mandated by law to regulate, develop and promote the sugar industry, was disbanded, resulting in a loophole that sugar importers exploited ruthlessly, with the full knowledge and sometimes the cooperation of senior government officers who assumed the role of issuing importation permits.

At the height of the board’s powers, sugar imports reduced from 277 tonnes in 2011 to 132 tonnes in 2012. The following election year, after the board had been disbanded, imports jumped from the 132 to 255 tonnes.

Cheap sugar had started to make its way into the country, and the steady flow through the country’s borders and through lax legislation has not been stopped since.

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Debt write-off

In March, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri said the government had plans to write off some Sh38.5 billion in debts owed by various sugar companies to pave the way for the privatisation of state-owned millers. 

Before sugar went to the dogs, Kenya led the world in the production of pyrethrum. Up until the late 1990s, Kenya produced up to 90 per cent of the globe’s pyrethrum.

Two decades ago, production of dried pyrethrum flowers exceeded 10,000 tonnes annually. But the mid-2000 started seeing a tragic decline in the growth and production of what was a top foreign exchange earner.

Like in the case of the other crops, lack of foresight from the government, corruption and mass looting in agencies mandated with the development of pyrethrum have in less than a decade led to the collapse of the crop that was first planted in the country in 1928.

Data from the Pyrethrum Growers Association shows that after a production high of 10,000 tonnes in 2003, yields fell to 5,000 tonnes the following year and to 3,000 tonnes in 2005. By the time we got to 2007, production had fallen to just over 1,000 tonnes.

In less than 10 years, production had dropped by some 90 per cent, sounding the death knell for a crop that meant so much to so many people. Today, we struggle to harvest anything above 1,000 tonnes despite a huge global appetite that current pyrethrum producers remain unable to satisfy.

Rwanda and Tanzania, itching to neutralise Kenya’s dominance of the regional economy, now produce the crop, with the two countries as well as China accounting for at least 33 per cent of global production.

Kenya, which led the world in production of this crop, now only produces two per cent of the total global production.

Like many other cash crops, the inability of the authority in charge, Pyrethrum Board of Kenya, to adequately pay farmers in time and keep up with global trends has meant many more households whose foundations sit on the crop are wasting away.

It would make for less depressing reading if these were the only crops in distress. However, it gets worse for the Kenyan farmer. Cotton farmers long abandoned their hoes. And in turn, the ginneries that used to run almost nonstop have gathered a lifetime’s worth of dust and rust.

Thin air

The waste and desperation of the machinery mirrors that of farmers who once grew the crop. Hope that was pegged on the fluffy pod evaporated into thin air after a series of rookie mistakes by the state.

The country’s best years in cotton production were two decades of unprecedented success between 1970 and 1990. At the time, the country’s production peaked at 100,000 bales of cotton, mostly from Western Kenya. This led to the thriving of companies such as Kicomi, Raymonds as well as Rivatex that supported thousands of people directly and hundreds of thousands more indirectly. So lucrative was the crop that growing and ginning was also practised in Lamu. The boom years were so good that Mombasa businessman Twahir Sheikh Said, popularly known as TSS, set up the region’s only ginnery on Lamu Island to meet the demand of farmers in Mpeketoni, Witu, Baharini, Uzi wa Tewe, Faza and Pate.

As the 90s checked in, there were two kinds of countdowns going on. The first to usher in the new millennium, and the second, towards the death of the cotton industry.

In 1991, the previously sheltered textile market was liberalised, leaving the Cotton Board of Kenya powerless against the new wave of capitalists let loose by a series of government directives cascaded down from suggestions by Bretton Woods Institutions. The result was the flooding in of cheap fabric from around the world, including the previously unheard of importation of second-hand clothes, and the killing of the cotton farmer. Raw textiles were brought from Taiwan and Singapore, countries that a few years prior were on the same development trajectory as Kenya.

Soon, companies had no option but to shut down. Thousands of people were rendered jobless. Yet another foreign exchange earner had been struck off the list and was from then on only to exist in history books as footnotes of what a great agricultural country once produced.

Now, skeletons of ginneries dot the Kenyan countryside. From Mwea to Malakisi, previously active sites lie in obsolete waste -- an indictment to how the country has managed one of its biggest assets over the years, leaving it unable to feed itself and employ its children.

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Kenya Sugar BoardFarmersCorruption