Bring back Kenya Sugar Board to rescue cane farmers

As expected, there was an uproar on Wednesday after Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mithika Linturi announced plans to allow importation of 180,000 metric tonnes of sugar to curb an acute shortage.

The Kenya Union of Sugar Plantation and Allied Workers was first off the blocks questioning the planned importation.

Meeting in Mombasa over the sugar sector, the millers said they had been sidelined in the move, despite being well-placed to understand the current deficit and what is needed to plug the gap.

They said the importation should not hurt local production or affect the quality of sugar consumed locally.

Now, sugar production and consumption in Kenya has always elicited heated debate and allowed a few powerful individuals to make a killing at the expense of our farmers and consumers.

We have been at the mercy of cartels that dictate the price of sugar on the supermarket shelves and the cane produced painstakingly by our hardworking farmers.

Interestingly, it has not always been the case. There was a time, sugarcane farmers in the sugar belt enjoyed their sweat and earned decent income from their produce.

They educated their children up to university using sugar cane income, built decent homes and had thriving local urban centres. Western region had vibrant towns such as Mumias, Chemelil, Miwani and Muhoroni, which today are a pale shadow of themselves.

The local economy was growing and farmers were well organised in influential cooperatives and saccos where they could borrow small loans.

There are several factors that have contributed to near collapse of the sugar sector. Two weeks ago, once giant Mumias Sugar Company announced it had scaled down operations for lack of enough cane to crush. The company said farmers are not delivering enough cane.

In recent years, sugarcane farmers have left the venture because of dwindling income and high cost of production.

Pricked by the farmers' plight, last year, I introduced the Sugar Bill, 2022 in Parliament seeking re-introduction of the Kenya Sugar Board to revamp the sector.

In 2013, we introduced the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) to handle farmers and food production. The move essentially killed the crops parastatals including the Kenya Sugar Board.

In my view, AFA is overwhelmed in supervision of farming, manufacturing and marketing of Kenyan agricultural products. The return of Kenya Sugar Board will help revamp our sugar sector as proposed in my Bill, which has already gone through first reading in the National Assembly.

The board will help farmers negotiate better prices for farming inputs, sale of their cane and lobby strongly on issues affecting them.

The board will also clearly articulate factors affecting cane production, engage all stakeholders including lawmakers on regulations and policy directive affecting cane farmers. We must not allow the sector to collapse.

The writer is Navakholo MP