Consequences of sugar mills shut down due to biting cane shortage

Mumias farmers and workers protest at Mwitoti on May 10, 2023. They appealed to President William Ruto to fulfil his promises about Mumias Sugar Company. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Anxiety has gripped cane-growing areas in parts of Western with the planned three-month shutdown of factories due to sugarcane shortage.

Workers and farmers’ representatives we spoke to say the directive was unavoidable, and the industry will now have to bear the consequences of lacking proper regulatory measures and ignoring farmers in their plans.

Kenya Union of Sugar Plantation and Allied Workers (KUSPAW) members stand to lose big as millers have already indicated signs of laying off non-essential workers during the shutdown.

KUSPAW now wants the government to allow millers special priority to import sugar to cushion them from the economic hardships they will face during the crisis.

“Without crushing cane, most of our millers, especially private ones, will lay off their workers in departments like loading, sugar harvesting, transport, and the like en masse," said KUSPAW Secretary General Francis Wangara.

He went on: "I have never been an advocate of millers importing sugar, but on this I feel the millers should be given first priority to import so that they can get profits to maintain their workers during these trying times.”

The former employee of Mumias Sugar when it was arguably the best run mill in the region, admits that the crisis of cane shortage is not new but keeps on recurring every five years largely due to the lack of proper legislation and policies to regulate the sub-sector and compel millers and the county government (with devolved agriculture function) to support the sector which supports a substantive population.

The economic survey of last year points out that the sugar industry supports the livelihoods of at least 17 per cent of the country’s population, majorly in western Kenya.

“It is a dominant employer and source of livelihoods for most households in 15 counties in Kenya traversing Nyanza, Rift Valley, Western and Coast regions,” reads the survey, which adds that sugar contributed some Sh28.5 billion (or 5.4 per cent) as the value of marketed production in 2021 from the cumulative Sh368.9 billion gathered from all crops.

Wangara feels that the shutdown should make millers stakeholders to think deeply on the need to invest in cane development which is too expensive to your average small scale poor farmer who supply cane to billion-worth millers that hardly help them through.

Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) estimates in its Policy on Revitalisation of Sugar Industry released this year that small-scale farmers who supply over 90 per cent of cane to millers spend at least Sh4,500 to produce a ton of sugarcane that they sell to millers at Sh5,500.

Saul Busolo the Kenya National Alliance of Sugarcane farmers Association (KNASFA) fears that the temporary suspension of crashing would be just that “a temporary solution” that will not help solve the problem for the long run.

He says the about 300,000 outgrowers small-scale farmers in the country who grow the crop on an average of 0.7 ha (less that two acres) in the country stand to be pushed into apathy the reason their numbers have been abandoning the crop over the years.

“When the government scrapped the Sugar Development Levy and the Sugar Board we moved many steps backwards in developing the crop as farmers have no avenue to get cheap loans to develop the crop,” said the one time Kenya Sugar Board (KSB) chairman. 

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