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Women group wallows in poverty as their Sh120m project wastes away

FINANCIAL STANDARD
By | Oct 12th 2010 | 5 min read
By | October 12th 2010
FINANCIAL STANDARD

By Vitalis Kimutai

When 3,000 members of the Korokwony Women Group were handed a Sh120 million worth of a maize milling plant by the Chinese government, they regarded it as a Mother’s Day gift.

The members of the giant group erupted into song and dance, a few shed tears of joy as the then Chinese ambassador to Kenya Mr Zhou Ping Jian and Public Works Minister Chris Obure cut the tape to mark the official hand over of the project.

For the rural women in Bomet Constituency, the hand over ceremony on May 9, last year marked an end to a torturous 20-year-old quest to own a state-of-the-art milling plant.

The then Chinese ambassador to Kenya Mr Zhou Ping Jian hands over the plant’s papers to members of the women group.Businessmen in the region say it will be difficult to run the project in the face of inadequate planning and thinning sources of raw material. 

It was perhaps a gift to mark Mother’s Day to the women then. But one year and four months later, the milling plant is yet to commence operations despite the fact that the Chinese government has retained four engineers for two years to oversee the operations and smooth hand over to local engineers.

The Chinese government set aside an additional Sh57 million to meet the expenses of the team to offer technical support to the group for two years.

Sight-seeing

However, with only nine months remaining to the expiry of the two years, the engineers and technical staff have been idling their time away and travelling around the region on sightseeing missions or simply sleeping and playing cards at the factory quarters.

During the handover, Home Affairs Assistant Minister Beatrice Kones, a member of the women group had said milling would start two months later.

In a recent interview with Financial Journal, Ms Kones, also Bomet MP, said operations were set to start in July this year. To date, the plant remains closed. The MP said the project could not operate earlier as scheduled due to technical reasons and lack of enough raw materials in the area.

Colourful speeches delivered by ministers, diplomats and officials of the company during the occasion have turned into empty talk, often a sad reminder of public ineptitude and political patronage that have bedevilled many similar projects in the past.

The women’s once rosy dream of economic empowerment is turning into a daily nightmare. The words that were spoken on what would have been a special day today reek of mockery of women’s efforts.

At the time, Ms Kones said the day was important for elderly members of the women group, as many had passed on before enjoying the fruits of their labour.

“The journey towards achieving this dream has been long, but today, we can celebrate and it is obvious to our friends and foes that the struggle was not in vain,” she said.

False dreams

“We have lost over 200 members due to old age, disease and other natural courses, but their investments would not be lost as their children will be enlisted as members.”

Mr Jian on behalf of the Chinese government handed over the plant to Mr Obure who received it on behalf of the Kenyan government and immediately gave keys and ownership certificate to Ms Kones and the women group’s chairperson Ms Priscilla Tesot.

“This project illustrates the benefits of Kenya-China bilateral and economic cooperation,” Obure said.

Beatrice Kones, Assistant Minister for Home Affairs and a member of the woen group. Photos: Vitalis Kimutai/Standard

Today, all these sentiments ring hollow as Ms Taplelei Rotich. The Bomet District Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Chairperson regretted that it had taken unnecessarily long for the milling to commence even as members of the group were left in the dark.

“What we know is that the committee mandated to oversee the project has been meeting once a week for several months and they keep saying it would commence operation soon. We do not know what is really happening,” she said.

Taplelei said the officials of the group should have convened a stakeholders’ meeting to chart the way forward on the running of the project.

“There are three ways to it; either we get a strategic partner to co-manage the factory, lease it out or manage it on our own.”

She said management of the project had remained a sensitive and controversial issue.

“Some of us have kept off because we do not want to be seen to be fighting over the project. But we are concerned that one and a half years down the line, it is yet to operate to the benefit of its members, the business community and the youth,” Taplelei said.

Inadequate capacity

Ms Tesot separately told Financial Journal there were logistical issues being worked on before the milling of maize starts at the factory. She was, however, non-committal on how long it would take before the milling starts.

Issues have been raised over alleged lack of capacity by the elderly women to manage the factory and many are of the opinion that the best way forward would have been to identify a strategic partner for co-manage the plant.

“There is no strategic plan for the planned operations and sourcing enough raw materials will be a huge challenge for the members as the region does not produce what is required for processing on a daily basis,” Erick Langat, a businessman, said.

“It is sad such a massive project funded by a foreign government has remained idle due to lack of proper planning,” Ms Alice Koech, a resident said.

“Youths would have benefited from employment, women would have made money from their investment just as the business community would have benefited. This project is almost becoming a white elephant.”

Ms Jane Tuwei, a teacher, expressed fears that the two years would elapse before the milling plant becomes operational — by which time, the Chinese government would have recalled their engineers and technical staff.

Idle resources

Local technical staff including engineers, marketers and managers are yet to be recruited to oversee operations once the factory starts processing maize flour.

Catchments area for raw materials (maize) will be Bomet, Kericho, Narok and Nakuru counties for the milling plant with a capacity to process 50 tonnes of maize daily.

“The South Rift region has the potential to meet the local and national maize demands only if farmers got proper incentives and advice from extension officers from the ministry of Agriculture” Mrs Tesot said.

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