Farmers, leaders reject State bid to privatise sugar firms

Farmers’ representatives and local politicians are reading mischief in the government’s plan to privatise State-owned sugar mills.

A fortnight ago, the government rolled out the process of leasing the mills to bidders who will take over the mills’ office buildings, machinery and nucleus farms for 20 years. 

Selected bidders will also inherit workers currently employed by the mills and other public amenities owned by the millers. 

The deal will affect South Nyanza Sugar Company, Nzoia, Chemelil, Muhoroni and Miwani. 

“The speed at which the leasing process is taking shape is suspect. Leasing the State mills is as good as surrendering the sub-sector to private dealers. We (farmers) will stand to lose big,” said Richard Ogendo, secretary-general of the Kenya Sugarcane Growers Association. 

The unionist said part of the nucleus estate land of companies like Miwani and Muhoroni was in the hands of influential politicians who were yet to surrender it. 

“The companies have thousands of acres of land, some of which is in private hands. You cannot get into rush of leasing the factories without sorting out such issues. A sit-down with all stakeholders in the sub-sector must happen before the leasing,” said Ogendo.

He called on the Ministry of Agriculture and Crops Development to consider surrendering some shares to farmers’ cooperatives, as is the case in India and South Africa, for growers to be involved in making decisions.  

He said if that is not done, farmers’ interests would not be looked after and they could end up uprooting the crop. 

The Kenya National Federation of Sugarcane Farmers Deputy Secretary-General Simon Wesechere said as long as the process of leasing the firms was still shrouded in opaqueness, it would end up frustrating revival plans. 

“Many stakeholders want to see the terms and conditions of the lease. We want to know the people or firms targeted for leasing so that we put in our input. Many of our members say the process is being micromanaged in Nairobi which is why they are against it. We want our factories back to profitability but through transparent processes,” he said. 

Politicians have equally opposed the process, saying its main mission was to sell prime land owned by the companies. 

MPs Jack Wamboka (Bumula) and Majimbo Kalasinga (Kabuchai) have been vocal against the leasing of especially Nzoia Sugar, which has the largest nucleus estate of the State-owned mills (21,000 acres). 

They say the land was given in trust by the community to the mill when it was established in 1978, and it should not be part of the leasing as envisioned by the Agriculture Ministry. 

The two lawmakers say leasing is not a solution to reviving the ailing State factories, noting some of government firms like KenGen are profitable. 

Not even the reassurance of National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang’ula that the factory was safe has managed to cool the anxiety about the leasing process. 

Last weekend, Wetang’ula said Agriculture Minister Mithika Linturi would tour Nzoia early February to pay debts owed to farmers and salary arrears for workers before the mill is leased.

When President William Ruto visited Nzoia Sugar some three months ago, he said focus was to return the mills to profitability as the government was “not good at doing business”. 

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