Jaswant Rai: The sugar man loved and hated in equal measure

Sugar and cement billionaire Jaswant Rai. [File, Standard]

Abducted billionaire Jaswant Rai is arguably a man loved and loathed in equal measure.

From tales of an astute businessman to a controversial figure, Rai, whom insiders describe as a soft-spoken shrewd businessman, strict and a go-getter, has maintained a tight grip on the local sugar sub-sector.

Rai owns a chain of multi-billion-shilling businesses in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

In Kenya, Rai has an interest in sugar milling and manufacturing cooking oil, soap and wood.

The business magnate has opened at least four sugar factories in Kenya. They are South Nyanza-based Sukari Industries Limited, West Kenya Sugar Company in Kakamega North, Olepito Sugar Limited in Busia and the most recent Naitiri Sugar Company in Bungoma County.

West Kenya was established in 2006 and Sukari Industries in 2012.

Olepito in Busia County would follow before Naitiri started milling in May 2022. Rai has spread his wings across the sugar sub-sector by opening more factories and establishing cane collection centres (weighbridges) at strategic points in Western and Nyanza.

He also embarked on an aggressive and ambitious cane development initiative in Western and Nyanza. The move was not only meant to scale up the supply of sugar in the country but also guarantee farmers a ready market for their produce.

An earlier report by the Sugar Directorate showed sugar mills owned by Rai control nearly half of the sugar produced locally.

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Data released by the industry regulator showed that Rai's sugar factories controlled up to 43 per cent of the total sugar output in Kenya between early 2021 and around October 2022.

When businessman Jaswant Rai welcomed former President Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, the then Deputy President, during the commissioning of Panpaper, now called Rai Paper, on December 15, 2016. [File, Standard]

The collapse of Mumias Sugar, which controlled nearly 60 per cent of the country's total sugar production at some point, and a myriad of challenges that left state-owned millers struggling was a blessing in disguise for Rai and his sugar business empire.

A firm associated with Rai, T.S Rai Limited, successfully launched a bid to buy the collapsed Webuye-based Pan African Paper Mills in 2016 for Sh900 million. Residents and a section of local leaders had huge expectations when the billionaire Rai's family took over Pan Paper Mills, which went under in 2009, leading to massive job losses.

The businessman is also associated with Nakuru-based Menengai Oil Refineries. Players in the sugar sub-sector have clashed in the past on the role played by the tycoon in shaping the industry.

Hundreds of farmers supplying West Kenya believe Rai continues to play a crucial role in their livelihoods by offering a ready market for their produce.

Raphael Welimo, a farmer and retired teacher from Matungu sub-county, described Rai as a key investor in the sugar sub-sector.

"Like any other investor, he (Rai) would want to make his profit and weigh whether the business is worth it or not. So far, he has done a great job. Since Mumias Sugar ran into trouble, West Kenya has been there to help farmers across villages develop sugarcane, and as we speak, Mukhweya and Namamali villages in Matungu have sugarcane," Welimo said.

He added: "If Rai was the evil person as his competitors claim, he would not be extending his tentacles beyond Kakamega North. His enterprise has impacted lives positively."

Rai's earlier bid to lease Mumias sugar company flopped sometime back, and West Kenya has not been at peace after Uganda-based Sarrai Group got the green light to manage the ailing sugar mill.

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