Why zoning rule could be silver bullet to resolve sugar shortage

Sugarcane farm at Vuyika in Malava, Kakamega County. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

The Sugar Report 2019, commissioned by former President Uhuru Kenyatta, supports the farmers' opinions. The report aimed to identify needed changes in the production, processing, and marketing of sugar.

"Delayed payments also force farmers to divert cane to other mills, who may pay promptly but at unfairly low rates. This has contributed to the impoverishment of the sugar cane farming community as cane farming is mainly their source of livelihood," reads the report.

To prevent this, Chesire confirmed that AFA would oversee the relationship between the millers and farmers. It will ensure that the mills pay for the sugarcane within seven days under the new zoning rule.

During a public participation meeting, West Kenya, Sukari, and Soin millers suggested that farmers should be free to supply their cane to whichever mill they prefer, as long as they did not have a contract with another mill.

Most farmers and millers like Mumias, Chemeli, Nzoia, Muhoroni, Kibos, Sony, Trans Mara, Butali and Busia, backed zoning, which will be monitored by AFA to ensure all parties follow the rules and guarantee crop development.

Chesire has divided the country into five regions for its 16 mills. Central includes Kisumu and Kericho counties, and southern Nandi sub-counties. Upper Western has Bungoma, Kakamega (excluding Mumias), Trans Nzoia, and Uasin Gishu counties.

Other regions include lower Western with Mumias, Busia, and Siaya counties, the southern region (Migori, Homa Bay, Kisii, and Narok counties), and the coastal region (Kwale, Tana River, and Lamu counties). Under this new system, farmers will sign a contract with their chosen mill within the region.

"Such arrangements will ensure millers continue to operate within capacities supported by mature cane in their respective regions," Chesire said in a letter to the 16 factories.

The AFA will also make sure that no mill harvests immature sugarcane.

They will have to show a planned supply of sugarcane that matches their factory's capacity before getting or renewing their license.

John Okoti Kamuye in his sugarcane farm in Bulecha village, Kakamega County. [File, Standard]

But despite all parties seemingly in agreement, the issue might still end up in the courts. Edwin Wafula, a lawyer who specializes in sugar-related legal disputes, says that it would not be surprising if the mills or farmers took legal action against the zoning rule.

"Competition Act No. 12 of 2010 prohibits restrictive trade practices like zoning except in unique circumstances like the one the director agreed on with the millers. But it's not far-fetched to imagine the decision will go unchallenged, not in the sugar sub-sector," says Mr Wafula.

The lawyer has filed a petition in the Kakamega High Court seeking to ban retailers who don't produce sugar from packaging and selling it under their own brand names.

Jacob Shisia, a farmer from Mumias East, thinks the government needs to do more to make the mills help farmers grow sugarcane.

"The directive by AFA is timely to make the millers more involved in helping the framers develop their raw material. But more is needed," he says.

Shisia notes that imported sugar is more profitable for the mills than locally processed sugar. He thinks they intentionally make life hard for farmers, leading to a fake shortage. They then use this as a reason to import sugar.

"Take away their licenses now and see how the area of land used to grow sugarcane increases dramatically in the next few months," he says.

Most of the respondents in the Sugar Report agree with Shisia's opinion. They suggest that a government agency, preferably the Kenya National Trading Corporation, should control the importation of sugar.