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Kwale miller picks irrigation in growing cane production

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An official explains sections of the Kwale International Sugar Company factory in the past. FILE PHOTO | NMG

A drive along the Likoni-LungaLunga highway at Ramisi in Kwale County presents kilometres of a sprawling sugarcane plantation on both sides of the road.

Depending on the time of the year, the cane is either sprouting, greening at knee level or flowering at the top, revealing it is maturing.

But beneath the plantations lies a well-organised mechanised sugarcane farming which, through technology, is milled at the Kwale International Sugar Company Limited (KISCOL).

It has turned out to be Kenya’s largest sugarcane farm using irrigation, which solely depends on its farm products and equally generates its clean power for milling.

Officials say they have enough water to last two consecutive dry seasons.

According to KISCOL agriculture manager Ravi Chandran, they chose irrigation as it reserves water in eight private dams and a number of boreholes, to ensure that there is enough supply to supplement the rains throughout the year.

The largest dam has a capacity of 2.5 million cubic metres of water, covering 165 hectares of land.

“We had to invest in digging the dams so that they can provide enough water. We also ensure that they are well managed and water can move to the pumps without any challenges,” said Mr Chandran.

Other than the dams, the company, which has been operating in Kenya since 2015, also uses a mechanised technique for all of its farm operations that constitute 5,500 hectares of cultivated cane.

Flowing the water into the farms may not be as easy, though. Mr Chandran says that through gravity , water is directed through the pumping areas where it is filtered and measured as per the cane plant.

“The filter is important because we are avoiding the pipes blocking from algae or other unnecessary material that may be in the water,” he said.

Such processes, he says, raise the cost of producing cane, but the yield is doubled.

Traditionally, large-scale cane cultivation is believed to take place in the western and Nyanza regions that depend on rain-fed agriculture.

But this is changing.

According to the Sugar Directorate, there are 15 licenced sugar dealers in Kenya, with KISCOL as the only producer on the Coast.

While same varieties are planted in the three areas, Kwale’s cane matures faster. “It is all about the climatic conditions. Sugarcane is a long-day crop. So due to its carbon components, it is likely to mature faster than the cane grown in wetter areas,” said Mr Chandran.

For instance, KISCOL grows the cane twice a year while cooler counties only harvest once a year. And, quality of the cane differs.

Using sub-surface drip irrigation, the plants are fed with water slightly below the soil. Unlike flooding or using sprinklers, this method supports monitoring technology that not only ensures water is saved, but makes it easy for fertiliser and other minerals to be applied effectively.

According to Mr Chandran, this is made possible through round the clock surveillance that ensures that all the canes have an equal and continuous supply of water.

“We have had to employ more staff who are always on standby in case we get notified or observe that the water is leaking. If a pipe is cut at the entrance it will affect the supply of water in the whole line,” he explained.

He explained with a consolidated system, it is easy to notice a decrease in the water pressure, hence reducing spillage and wastage of water.

This has made the company employ more field staff, a matter that has become one of its major setbacks.

They have also set aside a place to monitor field conditions, and soil moisture, and an automatic weather station.

Mr Chandran said that using technology and automated subsystem in more than 2,000 hectares of land has shown an impact, adding that if a pumping system is complete, the land under irrigation will expand to 4,300 hectares.

“We get more yields from our irrigated farms than the cane that depends on rain for productivity. Mechanisation is the way to go,” Mr Chandran.

However, as irrigation and production of cane thrives in Kwale, the company faces the squatters challenge of land invasion, making it difficult for the development of other sugar plantations.

This has forced the company to live side by side with the squatters on condition they do not destroy the crop.

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