Mordernise sugar production methods to compete with fellow cane growers

When I wrote on the so-called agreement between President Uhuru Kenyatta and President Yoweri Museveni for Uganda to sell “cheap” sugar to Kenya while Kenya sells beef and milk to Uganda, I was not oblivious to the imperatives of both countries belonging to COMESA and the East African Community as well. Notwithstanding all that, President Kenyatta had asserted in his speech at the KICC that he preferred importing “cheap” sugar from Uganda rather than do so from Brazil, hence the agreement.

My question was; did Uganda at that point in time produce extra “cheap” sugar to sell to Kenya? The answer obviously is in the negative. Another question was: did Uganda have the right to sell whatever sugar it has from whatever source to Kenya? The answer is not at all: we still have another year of protection to ensure our sugar production becomes competitive within the COMESA trading block. After that year is over, cheap sugar from Uganda could as well drop on us in thousands of tonnes if our production continues to be non-competitive?

But I am afraid, as things stand now, we are unlikely to be competitive in a year’s time; and not even in three years unless we are going to grow sugar as a plantation crop in the Tana Delta under irrigation. Here I fully concur with my friend David Ndii. So what do we do, particularly in the sugar belt in Western Kenya?

John Kamau has been writing extremely interesting pieces in the columns of The Daily Nation on the genesis and evolution of the sugar industry in the Nyanza sugar belt.

He has pointed out, citing government documents and correspondence, how “the model” of sugar farming and industrial processing was misconceived right from the word go, and the raw deal that the farmer has got from both the government and the factories is not a recent phenomenon; it has been there since the sugar belt was created. I concur with Kamau’s narrative.

The research we did in the late seventies at the University of Nairobi which was called “What is Happening to the Kenyan Peasantry?” convinced me that the sugar farmer in Nyanza’s sugar belt was nothing other than “a proletariat working at home.” That situation has not changed to this very day. If anything it has become worse to the extent that the value of money paid for the proletariat’s wage labour on the sugar farm has shrank considerably with the rise in rates of inflation as well as costs of living over time.

It is under this atmosphere that the government is now proposing a way out called “privatisation.” My own take on this is that privatisation is not a way out; if anything it will simply drive the farmer into a dead end. Same government same factories: how does this help? Same government same importers and smugglers of cheap sugar determined that the 300,000 tonnes annual shortage persists even as the number of factories processing cane doubles and the number of farmers grow by geometric progression!

Let us try a more useful scenario for the farmer. Under the current constitution, land, agriculture, water, environmental conservation, veterinary services, county transport and energy regulation are county functions. All these are functions touching on sugar production. The national government is only left with policy matters. Let us do this.

First, farmers should keep away from putting any money into the factories under this so-called “privatisation” exercise; the factories are archaic, mismanaged, expensive to run and money guzzlers. Further, the county governments where these factories are located should give the national government three years to decide what to do with them. As far as I am concerned the factories in Kisumu County are not worth more than scrap metal. Within those three years the factories can process all the cane in the field with the understanding that any new cane planted will not be delivered to them after the three years.

The second step is now to focus on the county governments in Western Kenya. First if all, forget about smallholder cane production unless it is done under block farming. In this arrangement all farmers pool their farms into blocks so that they can be ploughed together, planted together, weeded together and harvested together. The farmer’s investment is his plot where he has the responsibility to weed (i.e. labour) at the same time as his co-investors. This will reduce costs, improve productivity and ensure better returns to the farmer in terms of profits.

Third, the county government will, during the next three years, plan for irrigation in agriculture beginning with the sugar belt. This should not be difficult in Kisumu County where the River Nyando has, for a long time, been waiting for its water to be used within its basin particularly when it rains.

Fourth, the county government will, within the three years that the national government is pulling out its factories, negotiate a joint venture with an internationally renowned sugar producer—probably sourced from Australia or Latin America—to set up a modern sugar factory with modern equipment using energy generated from the sugarcane husks. In Kisumu County, we only need one modern and efficient factory; it will serve us profitably.

Five, the county government will also enter into a build, operate and transfer (BOT) venture with a company that can build and operate light rail in the sugar belt. I saw this working very well in Saint Kitts and Nives, a tiny nation in the Pacific Ocean.

This will greatly reduce the cost of transportation and ensure reliability in transporting cane from the farm to the factory. This transportation system can actually be extended outside the sugar belt where a mass railroad transit system can be developed around the lake, completely revolutionising the economy of the lake region.

Finally, once the sugar farms are “blocked”, the farmers can then have individual household farms where they can grow horticulture and rare animals for food self-sufficiency and the marketing of surplus production.

Given availability of water, pasture and animal feeds (molasses for example), a policy of “one home one dairy cow” can lead to tremendous milk production. Various methods of marketing surplus milk can then be invented by entrepreneurs and the notorious poverty bedeviling our lakeside households will thereby be kissed goodbye.