Long, tortuous journey of crafting laws to bring order in sugar sub-sector continues

Public Investment Committee and Social Services, Administration and Agriculture chair Emmanuel Wangwe. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

When asked what is ailing the sugar sector, President William Ruto, who was speaking from State House last month, had a straight answer: "Confusion".

This confusion is likely what informed the Jude Chesire-led sugar directorate at the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) to draft a policy titled 'Revitalization of the Sugar Industry' to the Cabinet early this year.

The Cabinet is yet to adopt legislations that aim to steady sugarcane production, which has been fluctuating in the past decade.

In the period, AFA records show a low of 191,251 hectares under sugarcane which produced 5,125,821 tonnes of cane in 2017, to the all-time high of 223,006 hectares producing 7,659,120 tonnes of cane in 2021, and down to a four-month closure of factories for lack of cane to crush in 2023.

However the confusion that has led to the historic lack of sugarcane can be traced to the 11th Parliament that scrapped the Sugar Development Levy (SDL) in 2016, a tax imposed on millers to go towards cane development.

By this time, the levy had supported cane development to the tune of Sh21 billion.

The farmers were then put in the hands of millers who hardly supported farmers in developing the crop.

Subsequent years witnessed the number of sugarcane farmers drop significantly as they could not afford the cost of cane development, prompting then Kanduyi Member of Parliament (MP) Wafula Wamunyinyi to draft the Sugar Bill 2019 to reintroduce the levy.

He argued that the cost of producing sugarcane was beyond many cane farmers, especially the poor. AFA statistics show that one needs some Sh4,500 to produce a tonne of sugarcane that sells at Sh5,500.

The highlights in the Bill tabled in the 12th Parliament were the reintroduction of the SDL and the Kenya Sugar Board from then the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food Authority (AFFA).

Wamunyinyi also championed for the Board to run independently as opposed to relying on AFFA to conduct its operations.

He suggested in his proposals that the Board punish unlicensed jaggery mills, have a say on duties and taxes in the sugar sub-sector and formulate all policies, plans, and programmes that lead to the development of the industry.

As fate would have it, the Bill sailed smoothly in the National Assembly in September 2021. However, the Bill succumbed to natural death in the Senate as the country went into elections last year.

When the 13th Parliament came into office, sugarcane farmers prompted opposition MP Emmanuel Wangwe to reintroduce the Bill, now known as Sugar Bill 2023, with a few amendments to help bring the sector to order.

In the legislation, now called 'Wangwe Bill', there would be the introduction of a sugar research centre to spearhead research on, among other things, high-maturing cane varieties.

The Bill, which President Ruto has promised to rally MPs from his division of the House to support, will also create a tribunal to handle the many sugar disputes that have gone to court causing endless battles that affect the operations of millers.

National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang’ula has promised to recall the Assembly for an emergency sitting on Thursday that will see the second and third reading of the Bill debated.