Farmers query Sarrai’s delay to engage them

A section of Mumias Sugar Company's land owners led by Simon Wesechere (in a suit), the Vice Secretary of Kenya Federation of Sugarcane Farmers address the media in Makunga, Mumias East in Kakamega County. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

Sugarcane farmers have questioned the delay by the investor who took over Mumias Sugar Company to meet them and agree on a realistic cane development plan.

The farmers, who used to produce and supply the bulk of sugarcane to the former leading regional miller, fear that the delays by Uganda-based Sarrai Group could be an indication of frosty future relations.

“We used to supply up to 95 per cent of raw material used at the factory while the company’s nucleus estate accounted for the remainder. We have noticed the new investor began cane development by cultivating the nucleus estate but he is yet to meet us; the out growers. We wonder where that places us as the key stakeholders of the company,” said Simon Wesechere, the Kenya Federation of Sugarcane farmers’ deputy secretary.

Mr Wesechere said the gesture had caused anxiety among farmers in Kakamega, who feel betrayed by the investor whose top managers have instead been meeting the political class; the same people the farmers think contributed to the downfall of the miller. “It’s natural for us to ask where the managers get time to attend political rallies for endorsement, but hardly spend time with us. We never saw Booker Tett – a firm which managed Mumias to stardom - do such,” Wesechere said.

Peter Rapando, another sugarcane farmer and local on Mumias estate, who leased their farm to the company some 30 years ago, also regretted that the leases had expired yet Sarrai had not engaged the community on the same.

He said they welcomed the move to revive the company, but the revival should adopt a procedure that will not put them in conflict with stakeholders.

“We gave our land, which forms the nucleus estate of the company. The lease has expired and we even have cases in court on the same. The new investor has not talked to us, but is busy tilling the firm,” said Mr Rapando, who leased his farm to the company when it was set up.

Boniface Nambutiye, another farmer, expressed fear that the Sarrai Group that is associated with Hoima Sugar Company in Uganda, had questionable relations with farmers.

Sarrai Group Operations Manager Stephen Kihumba, however,  said their hands were tied by a court that demanded they stop operations until a petition challenging how they won the bid to run the company is determined.

“We cannot engage farmers or related stakeholders in cane development. We can also not hire even as we had started the process and many people had applied for jobs,” said Mr Kihumba.

He called for patience as the court process was ongoing, saying meeting farmers was their priority.

Sarrai was the third highest bidder in the deal to search for a competent firm to run the Mumias miller. It placed a Sh11.5 billion bid for a 20-year period.

The highest bidder was Tumaz and Tumaz group with a bid of Sh27.6 billion.

It is the one that has challenged the bidding process in court. Tumaz was followed by Kruman Finances, who wanted a 25-year lease with Sh19.7 billion.

At its prime, Mumias produced 250,000 tonnes of sugar yearly. Poor management and heavy debts later drove it into debts.