Revelations that sugar farmers must wait longer to get paid for cane deliveries despite President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Mashujaa Day directive that they be paid immediately are disconcerting.
Agriculture secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri says there is need to conduct an audit to separate genuine growers from fraudulent individuals seeking to illegally benefit from the payments. While this move is understandable, it must be made clear to Mr Kiunjuri that speed matters. The growers certainly invested thousands of shillings in costly inputs and worked hard on their farms expecting to immediately reap from the sweat of their brow upon harvesting. Years later, their dues totalling Sh2.6 billion are yet to be paid.
This is quite unfortunate considering that farming is the source of livelihood for millions of households across the country. When farmers are not paid their dues even for a few months they are rendered incapable of making ends meet, pushing them deeper into poverty.
As the government once again intervenes to bailout the millers in the interest of farmers, hard questions must be asked. Top on the list of questions that farmers - and indeed every taxpayer given this huge amount of bailout - must loudly ask is, where did the money go?
It is not by mere coincidence that the State-owned millers are the ones not paying farmers. This is squarely the result of mismanagement, ineptitude and complacency that is common in the public service. That the private millers are thriving and paying farmers promptly only serves to highlight the rot in the State-owned sugar firms.
Mumias Sugar, which used to be the biggest miller, is now a pale shadow of its former self as it groans under dilapidating losses and overwhelming debt. Other public millers are in more or less the same depressing state.
Apparently, the Achilles heels of the State millers is moral hazard – the knowledge that should they sink into such a financial hole as they are now, the government will rush to their rescue with loads of taxpayers’ cash.
It’s time to break this cycle of bailouts by finding permanent solutions to chronic challenges choking life out of the Sugar sector. Those responsible for the disappearance of the farmers’ dues must be immediately held to account. That is the only way we start talking of reviving the industry.