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VAS

When politicking clouded real issues

OPINION
By Kizito Namulanda | August 26th 2015

A lot has been said since the sugar debate kicked off soon after President Uhuru Kenyatta's visit to Uganda where understandably, a deal to allow Kenya import sugar from the neighbouring country was struck.

As a farmer, I have watched lots of political theatrics unfold around this matter with deep sorrow and concern.

Let me start by saying that, as a sugar-cane farmer, I am well aware of what is happening concerning the sugar industry: I know that our beloved sugar industry is very much on its deathbed with the nurses and doctors expected to take care disinterested; aware that Kenya has to import sugar from Uganda or any other country to meet its deficit; aware that an average Kenyan including myself would not mind picking up cheaper sugar from the shelves without minding whether its homegrown or not; aware that we have perhaps gained enough protection from letting in cheaper sugar from Comesa block than we deserve.

As farmers, we are well aware of these things, yet this does not mean that we have no right to raise our own issues as concerns the crop that is indeed the single source of income to many people in western Kenya.

No doubt that this Kenya/Uganda deal on sugar importation has left a bitter test in the farmers' mouths. It baffles me to see just how much energy the Government has put into defending this deal, and yet seems to do nothing tangible to show commitment towards reviving the sugar industry.

Giving Mumias Sugar Company a Sh1 billion loan to revive it in my opinion does not foot the bill. That really is just a drop in the ocean. Reports that all that the billion did was to pay farmers who were owed less than Sh20,000 gives me ground to say so.

 

It goes without saying that a lot more needs to be done to demonstrate real intentions to revive Kenya's largest miller and the industry at large from the authorities.

But one might ask, did President Kenyatta really sign any deal to import sugar from Uganda? The answer to that is simple, listening to the President, his deputy and many more Government officials contradicting themselves over and over on whether indeed Kenya signed a deal to import sugar from Uganda or not, I can only liken this to a child who is denying having eaten sugar yet sugar particles are sticking all over his/her mouth.

It would serve farmers better if the Government came out in the open and published whatever deal, plan or arrangement it entered into with Uganda in Kampala over sugar importation. This will give farmers and other stakeholders the room to understand the situation better, and make decisions that serve them best.

For those wondering why western people have refused to move on to engage in other more profitable activities if sugarcane farming is not profitable any more, we are clinging unto some hope, a dream if you like.

Having tasted the sweetness of sugar-cane farming when it was first introduced, and not having many options around, we dare dream that with genuine commitment from the authorities, turning our dying cash cow into profitability is not just a pipe dream.

We dare dream that if only the authorities were committed to turning the situation around, we would soon be laughing all the way to the bank after every one-and-a-half years. Kenyans will be able to have cheaper sugar from local millers on their shelves and perhaps even move from a deficit position to a sugar surplus country.

Our suspicion is, however, that maintaining a sugar deficit could be more beneficial to the authorities, than reviving the industry. The kind of corruption allegations that mill around sugar importation and brokers does point at something.

I would say that the main issues facing the sugar industry can be classified into either farmer or miller-related. For the farmer, the issues revolve around use of poor seed cane varieties that take long to mature and give poor yield, expensive farming inputs and poor handling of the crop by millers like delaying to harvest cane from the farms, and letting cane stay on the farm longer after harvesting, thus reducing the weight, among many others.

Unfortunately, these are issues that at the moment, are out of the control of the farmer. Once a farmer signs a contract with a milling company, everything is controlled by the miller. Changing this arrangement, and suggestions on how this can be done are well documented, will go a long way in saving this collapsing industry.

We believe these are issues that can very easily be addressed by the authorities through various intervention measures including regulation. Turning to millers, the main issue is about mismanagement, which has led to declaration of huge losses. Whilst this problem is not unique to sugarcane millers in the country, it is not one that cannot be fixed. All it requires is commitment from the authorities.

The questions we are asking ourselves as farmers amid all this hullabaloo is why are all these challenges not being fixed? Does it mean that these issues are insurmountable according the authorities? Is there a possibility that the authorities might as well have given up on reviving the sugar industry? Doesn't the Government then have a responsibility to address this group that is losing their source of livelihood?

Knowing that recommendations on how to save/revive the dying sugar industry are well documented, it is curious that no one in authority is keen to come up with a plan to save the industry.

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