Questions abound over the future of sugarcane farming in Western Kenya after the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) last week suspended cane milling for three months.
It was an announcement that caught many by surprise, given that cane farming in the region is the source of livelihood for hundreds of families.
AFA Sugar Director Jude Chesire, while announcing the suspension, said the short-term measures are meant to bring order in the sugar sub-sector and ensure millers engage farmers in the usual labour and cost-intensive crop development process to forestall shortages in future.
Yesterday, Alfred Khang’ati, the Chairman of Nzoia Sugar Company Board of Directors in a phone interview confirmed to have received the order on Monday this week.
“We have been stopped from crushing. As a board, we have to sit back and find ‘what else we can do’ as we seek clarification on the matter,” said Khang’ati, indicating that he is yet to invite the board to deliberate on the matter.
“We crush cane, produce sugar and sell it. It’s from the sales that we are able to pay the farmers and suppliers their dues as well as staff salaries,” the former Kanduyi MP explained.
According to Khang’ati, the current problem of shortage of cane was brought about by the liberalisation of cane farming after zoning was abolished.
A raw material crunch has led to a spike in cane poaching cases, with cane prices retailing at Sh5,500 per tonne, and sugar at an average of Sh220 per kilogramme. But AFA maintains that the new measures are anchored on steadying sugarcane production to recovery, which has been fluctuating in the past decade.
Records from AFA show a low of 191,251 hectares under sugarcane farming which produced 5,125,821 tonnes of cane in 2017, to the all-time high of 223,006 hectares producing 7,659,120 tonnes of cane in 2021.
Top on the AFA's raft of measures is the creation of five cane catchment regions comprising two or more factories where contracted farmers will supply cane to a miller of their choice.
Former Kanduyi MP Wafula Wamunyinyi, who authored and tabled a Sugar Bill seeking to re-introduce sugarcane zoning in Parliament before he lost in the last polls, told The Saturday Standard that putting cane farming under AFA was a big mistake.
“They put sugarcane under other crops, killed the Kenya Sugar Board (KSB) that managed the sugar sub-sector and then farmers remained on their own,” said Wamunyinyi. He argued that the move opened avenues for cheap imports into the country at the expense of local sugar mills.
Wamunyinyi said "the sugar sub-sector lost the attention it had", saying cartels and ‘big boys’ are the ones running the show.
“The three-month suspension is well calculated to allow sugar cartels and ‘big boys’ take advantage of the situation to import sugar into the country and mint millions from it,” claimed the former lawmaker.
“The government is hiding under privatisation to make sugar factories look bad so they can be sold at a throwaway price,” he alleged.
William Kopi, the Butali Sugarcane Farmers Association chairman representing at least 40,000 members is certain that crime in the sugarcane growing areas will surge as is the norm even when factories take a three-week or one-month break for maintenance.
Mr Kopi attributes the acute cane shortage to a liberal market, where millers are allowed to get cane from any part of the country.
“When factories resume, AFA should stick to their new zoning policy, which allocates two or three millers in a cane harvesting catchment area. This way, the millers will be compelled to take good care of farmers to avoid a shortage of raw material which has left the farmers and millers in confusion,” said Kopi.
Saul Busolo, the Kenya National Alliance of Sugarcane Farmers Association (KNASFA) however fears that the temporary suspension on crushing would be just that, “a temporary solution” that will not help solve the problem in the long run.
“When the government scrapped off the Sugar Development Levy and the Sugar Board we moved many steps backwards in developing the crop as farmers have no avenue to get cheap loans to develop the crop,” said Busolo who earlier served as KSB chairman.