Business suffers as once vibrant sugar millers go silent on farmers

Nzoia Sugar Company. [File, Standard]

Businesses along the sugar belt in Western and Nyanza are facing an uncertain future and counting huge losses due to the closure of sugar factories.

This follows the decision by the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) to suspend sugarcane milling for three months, to allow cane to mature.

The closure is a major blow to local vibrant economy that thrives due to activities associated with sugar cane milling in towns and centres where factories are located.

In several towns, the vibrancy witnessed a few weeks ago is slowly being replaced by silence and closure of businesses. The towns affected include Chemelil, Bungoma, Mumias, Muhoroni, Kibos, Awendo, Shibale, Shianda, Harambee and Mayoni. The worst hit are those in the food industry who have been feeding hundreds of workers and suppliers who deliver sugarcane to millers in the region.

Interviews with several traders in the affected towns established that they are staring at a bleak future. They claim most of them are struggling for alternatives and fear they will not take their children to school for the third term starting August 25.

Some claim their situation has been worsened by the huge loans they took to revamp their businesses. In Bungoma, Mercy Nekesa, who has been running a shop at Bukembe trading centre for six years, is now stranded.

The centre is barely 5km from Nzoia sugar company which closed shop a month ago. Like most traders, Nekesa’s business entirely depended on the sugar miller for survival and she has been struggling to keep afloat.

She is not alone. Gideon Kibisu, a boda boda rider based at Kambi Mwanza stage located near West Kenya sugar company in Kakamega North, says closure of the factory has affected his transport venture.

“Before the factory was closed a couple of weeks ago, we had many customers, but things changed when the sugar miller closed shop, I rarely get four customers a day,” said Kibisu.

Deserted  Miwani Sugar Company. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

“There are over 100 boda boda riders here, but we have no customers. It is a pity that one has to wake up early, go to work and return hours later empty-handed because business has been disrupted,” he told The Standard.

Other businesses near sugar factories in Western and Nyanza, including groceries, mobile money outlets, eateries, and barber shops, have been crippled due to low economic activities.

In Kisumu, the tale of Miwani town is tear-jerking. The once robust sugarcane growing town is a ghost metropolis - bartered, abandoned and forgotten.

The town started dying after its lifeline - Miwani Sugar Company - was put under receivership in 2000, and finally died a few years later.

With the death of Kenya’s oldest sugar mill,er thousands lost their jobs and businesses that depended on cash flow from the factory, closed down.

The closure of all sugar mills, appears to be the final nail on the coffin. A few businesses that had started to strategically return to the centre in anticipation of the planned revival of the millers by the government, have been pushed back to the drawing board.

Joseph Okello, an hotelier, said he had hopes of business returning, but all that has now collapsed. He believes the damage the closure of millers has done, is immense.

“It is not easy to survive for four months without business,” he said.

Sony Sugar Company. [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

The problem has been compounded by a group of activists who staged protests to force a private miller that had been operating, to close down. This has thrown businesses at Kibos and parts of Mamboleo into jeopardy as traders mull ways to survive. Led by Charles Atyang, they claimed it was unfair for private millers to continue operating while public millers are closed. He claimed the development was unfair competition.

In Awendo, traders have breathed a sigh of relief as Sony Sugar continues with its operations despite the ban by AFA. Ezra Olodi, the National Federation of Sugarcane Farmers Secretary General, said the closure of sugar companies would lead to farmers languishing in poverty and school children staying at home.

“The government should let sugarcane factories operate to allow parents get money to take their children to university, colleges and secondary schools,” Mr Olodi said, adding that some had taken loans.

Local investors in Awendo town also fear that if Sony Sugar is closed, insecurity will be high. “It’s closure will mean that even our businesses get affected. People will now be sleeping hungry,” Alice Awino said.

Sony Sugar company MD Stephen Ligawa said they were still operating. “We are running with AFA consent,” Mr Ligawa said.

Farmers said they are worried about the sorry state of affairs. Patrick Mudialo from Matungu constituency said he has weeded his cane for a third time and expects it to be ready for harvesting in two months.

“I am confused because AFA ordered sugar mills to shut down for at least four months over what the regulator termed lack of raw materials, I don’t know what will happen to my sugarcane if the sugar mills will stay shut,” adding he invested over Sh120,000 on the sugarcane. “I bought seed cane, fertiliser and paid for land preparation, among other expenses,” said the farmer.

Everlyne Matendechere, a farmer from Mumias West, said her 16-month-old crop was nearing harvest. She took a Sh70,000 loan to invest in production of the sugarcane.

[Anne Atieno, Benard Lusigi, Juliet Omelo and Sharon Owino]

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