Bitter life for residents after collapse of Miwani Sugar Company

Miwani town in Kisumu county, the once up on a time business hub when the area sugar mill was in operation. The town has been reduced into poverty hub as the miller closed and went under receivership. (Photo: Denish Ochieng/ Standard)

When Miwani Sugar Company crushed its last cane in the late 1990s, the fortunes of Miwani Township started dwindling.

The sugar company, tucked right in the middle of Muhoroni Constituency in Kisumu County, was the chief driver of the township’s economy. It eventually went into receivership in 2000, crushing the hopes and economic survival of many.

Today, the township, which had an estimated population of 10,000 in late 1990s, is now a pale shadow of its former self. The roaring engines brought life to the township’s residents, but and when they fell silent, Miwani’s economy fell silent with them. The economic silence has continued to be louder as hunger and poverty bite.

Joel Owuor, 52, came to Miwani in 1988 to work in the factory as a sugarcane cutter. When Wednesday Life visited Miwani, Owuor and other residents were whiling away time at a boda boda shed constructed by the Kisumu County Government.

He says that when he first came to the township 28 years ago, the place was beautiful, full of activity, and money was flowing.

Falling brick houses, which used to house company employees who had to relocate to other places after their stay in Miwani became untenable, are a testimony to the vibrancy of life in the small township before the factory collapsed.

“The story of how bad life has been here since the machines at the factory went silent can be told by almost every other thing you see around. If you see a falling permanent house, know that at some point it was in good shape and would be painted from time to time,” says Owuor.

For instance, there were streetlights, which ensured the township was lit all through the night. Today, there is no functioning streetlight.

“One only needed Sh50 to get to Kisumu from here because the road you see here (pointing at the Chemelil-Kisumu tarmac, which is now in a state of disrepair) used to have public service vehicles. Today, you need Sh200 to get to Kisumu because the only available means of transport is motorcycle taxis or boda boda,” says Owuor.

Jason Omondi, 35, a boda boda operator in Miwani, laments that the once busy tarmac only become relevant to matatu operators whenever there is a crackdown on unroadworthy vehicles by the National Transport and Safety Authority.

“I am sure that if the tarmac road connecting Miwani to Kisumu can be in a good condition, operators would feel encouraged to ply the route,” says Omondi.

RisperAkoth, a single mother of four, has issues with healthcare provision in the township. Akoth, 40, is only left with the memories of Miwani Health Centre, which was run by the factory. The health centre stopped operating when the factory went under.

“The healthcare provision at the hospital was really good. There were drugs and enough staff. But now the situation is different at Miwani Dispensary as in most cases you are told to go and buy drugs which are very expensive,” says Akoth.

And just to show the level of grinding poverty, pupils at Miwani Section Three Primary School had to study under four roofless classrooms after the roofs were blown off by wind in April last year. It took the intervention of Mabati Rolling Mills, which donated 250 sheets to the school in September.

“This place is slowly going to the dogs,” says Miwani East Sub-location assistant chief Joseph Obuolo, who was born and brought up in Miwani.

Obuolo, who became the area chief in 1999, just a year before the company went into receivership, says the tragedy of Miwani is that livelihoods wholly depended on the factory as it employed locals, and promoted businesses in the area since people had purchasing power.

“If you were to conduct a survey, you would realise that in most households, people make do with just one meal a day. Three meals is a dream; the most able families can only afford two meals a day,” says Obuolo. The only pit latrines in Miwani are right outside Obuolo’s office. They are themselves a health hazard. The doors and roofs are gone and vegetation has covered part of the structure, making a snake attack very possible.

“That is what we have right now. In fact, when you ask around, you will be told that people go to the bush for long calls,” says Obuolo.

After the closure of the factory, Miwani and the sugar plantations have become hideouts for criminals.

“Whenever we get wind of such elements here, we make haste, arrest and hand them over to the authorities. We have Miwani Police Station right here and we have been working hand in hand with the police,” says Obuolo.

Obuolo, however, says that subsistence farming and limited trade still goes on in the area. This writer saw a number of shops and other small businesses in operation.

“Since most of the farms have continued to be under sugarcane, the youth weed tender sugarcane plants and cut the canes when they mature,” says Obuolo.