The bad times did not just happen on Mumias Sugar Company.
There were signs. Some more visible than others. But all were noticeable to anyone who cared enough to look. Former and current staff at the company have a place to lay their blame. They say, after years of pointing out the wrong, no one in a position to alter the course of the company’s downfall even batted an eyelid.
“They just didn’t care,” Gamaliel Anamanjia, a former manager at the company says.
The Sunday Standard can now reveal how successive political regimes ignored the company even when evidence of corruption and mismanagement was placed right under their noses.
“These guys unfortunately do not care about what happens to their people. They lack concern,” Billy Wanjala, a former board member at the Kenya Sugar Board, says.
Wanjala, also a sugar cane farmer, remembers his lobbying past with a tinge of regret. Sitting on a lounge in a hotel he runs in Kanduyi, a fast growing urban centre on the edge of Bungoma town, he remembers some of the conversations he had with MPs and ministers who came from the cane-growing belt. “These are people whose school fees were probably paid for from proceeds from cane farming. But when it mattered most, they chose themselves,” Wanjala says. Politicians were for many years beneficiaries of the company’s bad management.
“The privatisation meant an opportunity for lucrative tenders at the company even if this meant killing the very goose whose eggs they had survived on for decades.”
From somewhere behind him, an imposing twang of a lead guitar from a rhumba song wafts through. Wanjala sips his diet coke. He is an old man now. He looks after himself a bit better. A combination of the taste of the soda and the music of his youth somehow energizes him.
“They completely failed us,” he says before putting his diet coke back on the table.
His eyes are a mixture of emotions. Anger. Regret. With some bit of melancholy sandwiched in between. A bit like the sweet and sour taste of a cut sugar cane stem that has spent more time under the hot sun of Western Kenya. When you chew it, there is the ever-faintest taste of molasses.
Anamanjia, the former manager, says the Mumias goose stopped laying golden eggs as early as 2010 and the tastes of those in authority were not refined enough to tell that something was terribly wrong.
“We started writing to the government since 2010. We even went to the American Embassy. We sent letters to the President’s office, to the Prime Minister, to the ministers of agriculture…unfortunately no one paid attention,” he says.
He remembers an incident in 2014 when he and a colleague were locked up in an office somewhere in the vast Mumias Sugar Complex hacking away at solutions to the looming crisis ahead. “Then we heard that the President might be coming to Kakamega town for a state function,” he says.
The two of them hurriedly printed out a document detailing the rot at the company, jumped into a car at around 10am and drove to the official residence of a local bishop.
“We were told he would be hosting the President the next day for lunch. We beseeched him to pass on the document to him. Then we left.”
He never knew whether the document reached its destination. They were later to learn that the churchman was a close associate of a former top manager on whose feet, they believed, the collapse of the company lay. “Most people in positions of power participated in eating Mumias to the ground… that is why there is nothing tangible in the calls to revive the company,” he says. Seven years before it got into receivership, it was clear the political class was not out to save the company.
In December of 2012, MPs passed a controversial Bill that sought to abolish the sugar board and sister institutions like the Kenya Sugar Research Foundation. Abolishing the board, officials warned at that time, could “signal the death of the sugar industry and the development of the sugar growing region”.
This, Wanjala says, was the end of not only Mumias, but the entire sugar belt.
“To know whether this was deliberate or not you have first to understand the functions of the board. We were in charge of licencing new millers. We were also in charge of licencing sugar importation based on data we had. Sugar is a lucrative business and there are many people who’d want to benefit from it. Some of them through dubious ways,” he says. The abolishment of the board meant there would be no regulator in place for importation or licencing of sugar millers. “This was the aim of the board being disbanded. It created a loophole exploited with a vengeance,” Wanjala says.
On January 30, 2013 former President Mwai Kibaki signed the Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Food Authority Bill into law. This was just two months before the end of his second and final term. Before being disbanded at the end of 2012, the Kenya Sugar Board was key in implementing key regulations within the industry. For instance, the board in 2011 oversaw a new vetting and cancellation of sugar importation licences that had been granted the previous year. This saw sugar imports reduce from 277 metric tonnes of sugar in 2011 to 132 metric tonnes in 2012.
The following election year, imports jumped from the 132 metric tonnes to 255 metric tonnes. Cheap sugar had started to make its way into the country, and the steady flow through the country’s borders and through lax legislation has not been stopped since.
This, the former board members say, might have been the reason behind their disbandment. “There wasn’t even a whimper of protest from the region’s MPs. We had spent months trying to make the legislators understand the importance of the board to farmers. We even sent many of them money for transport and some bit of pocket money to encourage them to come home and listen to their people. Most of them never even showed up. They never even sent apologies,” Wanjala says.
Now, Mumias is back on the lips of the country’s political leadership and once again, talks of its revival feature prominently. On October 6, Kakamega County leaders resolved to hold talks with national government on the revival of the company. “We are going to engage KCB to recall the receiver manager they appointed last month,” Wycliffe Oparanya, the Kakamega governor, said. In November 2018, Oparanya was appointed a co-chair of a task force set up to look into the millers woes. The taskforce was to hand in its report within six months.