The suspended National Treasury directive authorising traders to import unlimited quantities of sugar shows how low our local production is. We have so far imported more than 300,000 tonnes which is almost half of what we produce. We must consume sugar regardless of the source, but it surely tastes sweeter when locally produced.
Currently, the sugar industry is characterised by decreased cane harvesting, reduced sucrose content, farmers who are deeply indebted, factories whose machines break down and must be closed for maintenance, cane poaching and the continuous blame game.
The government interventions in the sector are seen as political, which should not be the case. Though the various stakeholders are trying to improve the sector, a lot more needs to urgently be done. Small scale farmers especially those who supply to public millers like Mumias are the worst affected. They are faced with delayed payments, low prices and high interests and deductions on payments.
This needs to be checked. The national government should consider giving the money directly to the farmers to buy sees and fertilizers. Farmers have associations to facilitate monitoring the progress. This would enable farmers to plant the new early maturing high sucrose content varieties, leading to higher yields. It also reduces over reliance on the millers who provide the input for credit and later deduct from payments on cane delivered. For accountability the government can consider outsourcing such services from universities such as Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute.
The county governments should commit to improve access to the farms by improving feeder roads and ensuring that farmers are not levied, as this reduces the farmers’ returns. They can later recoup through other means. Agriculture being a devolved function, counties should partner with the central gov’t to provide extension services and aid in mobilisation of stakeholders especially farmers. In exchange they should get a say in the management of mills.
Factories, especially gov’t owned ones have ageing machinery which have to be closed often for repairs. Instead of the government giving money to bail them out, it may be viable to get them modern equipment from countries, who are leaders in the sugar industry such as India or Brazil. This would set them on their way to self-reliance in the future.
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It should also provide grants, in conjunction with the Sugar Directorate, to the factories to support research on sugarcane by products like Ethanol. This is because research and development requires resources which the struggling companies may not have currently. Taxes on the by products in the future would make that a worthy investments.
Poaching which is currently rampart is both a simple and a serious challenge. Serious because in principle, it’s the same as the defective, poorly built houses that are collapsing and the use of undulated fuels in the energy sector. It’s simple to deal with as the managers of the ten factories in Western Kenya can have MOUs with each other to prevent poaching.
Though self-regulation is best, the government can also eradicate the vice by refusing to renew licences for factories without sufficient cane supply.
Since our farming is rain dependent, let’s try to mitigate the losses to the farmers by insuring their crops. A stable political environment is also a big boost to any business. Cases of cane burning due to disagreements of any kind should not be tolerated.
For sustainability, let’s support our local sugar industry.