New task force should help bring to an end sugar industry woes

Last week, Agriculture CS Mwangi Kiunjuri launched a task force to address the crisis in the sugar sector. Probably because many Kenyans—especially those reeling from the collapse of the once vibrant sugar industry—viewed the launch as yet another of the many doomed attempts to revamp the sector, the occasion did not receive much media play.

Or maybe because the terms of reference of the 16-member committee that Mr Kiunjuri will co-chair with Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya are the same mundane issues we have become accustomed to; or may be because of the wide scope of the task force’s mandate—looking into ways of addressing the past, present and emerging challenges in the sugar industry—many believe what will come out after the 30-day deadline is another case of refusing to confront what really befell the industry.

No doubt, many task forces, including by Parliament, have come up with recommendations of how to fix the sugar industry. That we are grappling with the same issues over and over again could be an indication of wrong diagnosis of the malady. The current team has a chance to make a difference.

For a long time, the woes bedevilling the sugar industry have been highlighted in the media, especially the sorry state of the former sugar belt regions in Western Kenya.

In truth, the dwindling fortunes of sugar farmers is a sad tale of how greedy government officials and factory managers got induced to collapse the economy of a whole region.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, in 2009, the contribution of sugar to the country’s agricultural output was 15 per cent. In fact, it was estimated that 25 per cent of Kenya’s population depended directly or indirectly on sugar mostly through the 250,000 smallholder farmers supplying nearly 80 per cent to the factories. The rest is supplied by factory-owned nucleus estates. Fast forward to 2018; the story is depressing to say the least.

From this, it is obvious that for the task force to succeed, it must avoid the pitfalls of previous attempts which by design or default, left out the farmer.

Putting the farmer at the centre of efforts to resuscitate the industry should be the rule rather than the exception.

In addition to the challenges Kenya’s sugar industry has faced—trade liberalisation under COMESA and WTO rules, high costs of production, broken down infrastructure which are not unique, the industry has suffered inordinately from the effects of poor governance and insufficient funding for expansion and research.

Contraband sugar disguised as products of known millers have undermined the industry in a big way. Flooding the market with cheap imports coupled with the non-payment for sugar delivered to the factories has made planting sugar a non-lucrative venture. And therein lies the rub.

The task force will not be reinventing the wheel, but if nothing else, they should make it their business to propose the right medication to the malady.