Farmers' sweet old days before the collapse of state-owned factories

Sugarcane. Between 1970 to around 2010, farmers were paid on time and employees received their pay every month without fail. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

The sugar sub-sector was once a lucrative venture for the farmers and the country at large.

It used to control over 15 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), earnings that were accrued from the agricultural sector.

This was long before the sweet journey of sugarcane farming within the sugar belt zone became sour.

Contracted farmers and employees of the sugar factories walked with a strut and for a good reason, they earned good money and fringe benefits in a rustic rural setting.

This enabled them to invest, own cars, build lovely homes, and educate their children in high-end schools. Those were the sweet old days.

“When Mumias and Nzoia sugar factories among others opened their doors in the ’70s and 90’s, farmers used to get huge sums of money whenever they harvested their crop and delivered the same to the factory. The money enabled us to take our children to school,” said Patrick Mutimba.

Mr Mutimba, a Mumias Sugar contracted cane farmer said: “We used to pay after a week upon delivering the cane to the factory. This was like an early Christmas for us.”

He said that cane farmers having money in their pockets led to the sprouting of towns like Shibale, Mayoni, and Ekero in Mumias town and Bukembe, Matisi, and Kanduyi in Bungoma.

Between 1970 to around 2010, everything moved like clockwork: Farmers were paid on time for the cane delivered and employees at the sugar factory received their pay cheques every month without fail from the sugar factories with Mumias Sugar leading the pack.

The miller was the largest sugar factory in Eastern Africa and controlled up to 50 per cent of the market share. Annually, the miller produced about 250,000 metric tonnes of sugar. 

Rhodah Bakhuya, a cane farmer and a former employee of Mumias Sugar said: “Maisha ilikuwa London’ (life was a bliss) when the millers were still ‘churning out natural sweetness’ that controlled the economy and politics of Western and Nyanza regions.”

She was speaking during a two-day sugar conference at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (Mmust) that ended yesterday.

Bakhuya said that whenever your child was sent home from school, as a parent  ‘you only needed to present a letter’ showing you are a contracted farmer with Mumias sugar and he would be re-admitted back to class since the school management had surety that the money would be paid.

Years later after she was employed by Mumias Sugar, things became much better.

“We used to get prompt payments, quarterly bonuses, a good health cover, and a pension scheme that when you retire, you go home with a hefty financial golden handshake,” said Bakhuya.

Her story resonates with other cane farmers and employees of sugar companies like Mumias, Muhoroni, Nzoia, Sony, Chemelil, and Miwani.

And after 2010 trouble started in the state-owned sugar millers, salaries were delayed, allowances to employees stopped and debts owed to suppliers and farmers piled up.

Since then, the story of the rise and fall of giant sugar factories in Western and Nyanza regions has reached mythical proportions.

The sugar millers are now empires in the throes of death grappling with a debt of over Sh117 billion that the government intends to write off.

Things spiraled from bad to worse and a majority of the millers had their operations ground to a halt. Cane farmers on the other hand uprooted their cane.

Peter Ndeche, a former employee of Mumias Sugar said that the ‘ghosts’ of Mumias Sugar are still haunting the miller’s former employees since potential employers associate them with failure.

“Are you sure you won’t bring down our company the way you did with Mumias Sugar if you get this job?” It is one of the questions they normally encounter while looking for a job.

Some farmers are opposed to zoning saying state-owned millers don’t pay farmers and, therefore, politicians should not politicize the issue and scare away strategic investors.

“Government-owned sugar factories were mistreating cane farmers, the reason they went under. It’s not as a result of poaching but nonpayment for cane delivered. Farmers had two options, uproot cane or take it to a private miller that would pay promptly,” said David Opala, a cane farmer from Bungoma County.

According to Opala, the enemy of the sugar millers is the state and the politicians. He said that critical views from the farmers were omitted from the sugar task force report presented at the conference. 

“You can’t force a farmer to take sugarcane to a state-owned sugar factory where he won’t be paid,” said Opala.

Rasto Ojago, a farmer from Bungoma,  said farmers should be allowed to supply cane to a company of their choice. 

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