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How sugarcane mess turned farmers into bitter paupers

BUSINESS
By Anne Atieno and Benard Lusigi | Mar 26th 2022 | 4 min read
By Anne Atieno and Benard Lusigi | March 26th 2022
BUSINESS

Mumias sugarcane farmer Simon Wesechere inspects his sugarcane farm at his home at Shianda in Mumias East on March 24, 2022. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Sugarcane farmers from Migori county are disappointed lot after Sony Sugar Company failed to pay them for deliveries made over a year ago.

Elly Ochieng, one of the affected farmers, claims to have harvested his crop and made deliveries to the sugar mill in February 2021 but has not been paid his dues to date.

Ochieng, who has been doing sugarcane farming since 1986, says desperation caused by non-payment has made him abandon the crop.

"I am tired of the sugarcane industry. It pains me that I incurred huge expenses when I was growing my sugarcane but ended up getting nothing out of my sweat, not even a single penny,” said the farmer.

Like many other distraught cane farmers in the area, Ochieng, who was reluctant to divulge how much he is owed by the state-owned sugar company, has since shifted to maize farming and opted to lease out part of his farm to other farmers.

Paul Siengo, another farmer, leased 18 acres of land to plant sugarcane and pumped at least Sh480, 000 into the venture.

“Part of the money went to leasing the land and the rest into land preparation, buying seed cane and other farm inputs as well as maintaining the plantation,” he said.

According to Siengo, all the efforts went to waste because his payment has been delayed for over one year since he harvested the crop and made deliveries to the sugar mill.

His sugarcane plantation which is located at Kabuoch in Homa Bay County and Oyani Masani in Migori was planted in February 2017.

“The crop matured after 12 months and stayed for 27 months before it was harvested and taken to Sony Sugar factory,” said the farmer.

Siengo hoped to get Sh1.9 million from his venture but he has not received a penny for the toil.

“It is like they have forgotten about us. Whatever I did was in vain. It is very discouraging,” he said.

According to Sony Sugar company managing director Stephen Ligawa, plans to pay the farmers are in top gear after the firm resumed full operations.

He noted that some farmers were being paid directly by the Ministry of Agriculture from the Sh350 million released to the factory following President Uhuru Kenyatta’s directive.

Mr Ligawa said Sh318 million was allocated to the factory and Sh38 million was to be paid to farmers while Sh180 million went into factory maintenance.

"We are working on documentation which we are submitting to Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) so that they can pay suppliers, in order to have factory maintenance done," he said.

The company serves over 10, 000 cane farmers spread out within the cane growing zones of Migori, Homa Bay, Narok, Kisii and Nyamira counties.

According to Ligawa, the number of farmers has reduced drastically over the years.

In a past interview, Ligawa said the company has in the recent past experienced frequent breakdowns, adversely affecting production and financial performance.

“Challenges of payment and breakdowns tends to discourage a number of farmers from doing business with us,” Ligawa admitted.

On May 2019, all casual employees of the company were sent on compulsory unpaid leave as the management cited financial difficulties.

The three-month leave order sent shock waves across Migori County where the giant miller is a source of livelihood for thousands of people.

The company runs at a capacity of more than 3,000 tons per day.

Ezra Olodi, who is the secretary-general of the Kenya National Federation of Sugarcane Farmers, said when cane prices are increased, sugar mills also increase transportation costs, hence hurting cane farmers.

"Millers with the high cane price are taking advantage and increasing transportation fees as they please," said Olodi.

The sugarcane pricing committee reviewed producer prices from Sh4,320 to Sh4,380 per ton.

He further stated that some millers are not harvesting mature cane hence farmers incur losses when their cane overstays on farms.

“We are aware Sony Sugar is paying farmers but the company must try as much as possible to clear the payment,” said the official.

He noted that there is quite a number of farmers who are yet to receive their pay. A year ago, the farmers were demanding over Sh500 million from the company.

The federation says farmers from Western and Nyanza have suffered a lot under rogue sugar mills, political brokers and cartels in the sugar sector.

“The government set up sugar task force to help address the plight of the farmers but nothing was achieved,” said Simon Wesechere, the federation vice secretary-general.

According to him, the revival of collapsed millers does not require a miracle but the implementation of existing cane policies, proper legislation and good management of the factories.

Dr Wesechere questioned why the government has been unable to deal with the problem of cheap sugar imports.

“Sugarcane farmers, just like their coffee and tea counterparts ought to be cushioned from exploitation and unhealthy competition,” Dr Wesechere said.

According to Wesechere, cane farmers have been abandoned by both counties and national government.

“The best way for the government to ensure the once-lucrative sector is thriving is to get response and feedback from the farmer who is a key stakeholder in the sugar sector,” he said.

Farmers have been questioning how Cess levy collected by county governments in sugarcane growing areas is used.  According to Wesechere, the levy is meant for infrastructural development.

Boniface Kefa, a farmer from Mumias East said he has been growing sugarcane for over 30 years “but I never experienced the challenges farmers are going through in the past.”

He believes the answer to the current challenges in the sugar sector is political goodwill.

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