Imports split sugar farmers as gates open

A man shops for sugar. FILE PHOTO | NMG
A man shops for sugar. FILE PHOTO | NMG  

Sugarcane farmers from western Kenya have opposed a plan to have local millers import and re-brand the sweetener for sale to customers, terming the move a death blow to the industry.

They said once millers engage in retail business, they would forget their core role of crushing cane.

Kenya National Federation of Sugarcane Farmers deputy secretary general Simon Wesechere said millers control the lives of cane farmers directly, adding that they should be as far away from imports as possible. 

“Millers are only supposed to crush cane to avoid conflict of interest. It’s through sugarcane production that the livelihoods of over 150,000 farmers will be sustained,” he said. 

Growers from Kakamega, Bungoma and Busia are instead rooting for a sustainable approach to cane shortage rather than going for imports.

Mr Wesechere asked the Agriculture and Food Authority and the Sugar Directorate to look for a long-term solution. “Importing sugar is a short term remedy meant to benefit sugar barons, investors and a few people at the expense of farmers. If firms don’t want to mill, they should close down or change their business,” he said.

The official said cheap imports were to blame for the sorry state of the country’s sugar industry.

Last month, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Willy Bett, while in Mumias to issue a Sh500 million cheque, said millers, particularly those experiencing cane shortages, could be given the green light to import and re-brand sugar locally.

He said imports are expected to cancel a deficit of 400,000 tonnes in production. The directive is prone to abuse by sugar barons. Already, shiploads of the sweetener have landed at Mombasa port this month.

The State-owned company shut down operations in April following cane shortage. It wants to ship in at least 300,000 tonnes to help generate income and sustain operations. 

Mumias East MP Benjamin Washiali said the move would help the cash-strapped factory. 

But Mr Antony Onyango, a farmer from Busia, said the reasons given by the CS to warrant imports are not satisfactory. 

“Our mills are poorly managed. Let us revive this industry by changing the management and encouraging farmers to embrace cane development.
Meanwhile, cane farmers have called on the government to specify the deadline for importation of sugar to avoid flooding the market.

They said they support the idea of millers bringing in sugar because it would help them sustain their staff, rather than cartels.

“Millers import sugar to fill a gap. Once they resume normal operations, they should stop the imports,” said Mr Francis Wangara, Kenya Union of Sugar Plantation and Allied Workers secretary general.

“Any miller who will sideline operations and concentrate on imports should be denied the licence. They should import as they mill,” Mr Wangara.
Mr Wangara said that many millers ignore sugar development and operations, rendering workers jobless.

“The key objective of millers is to uplift the living standards of employees and farmers,” he said.

They also said the board of management of all millers should look for investors to pump in money to revive the industry.

Kenya National Sugarcane Farmers Union deputy secretary Atiang’ Atyang’ said a factory cannot depend on importation. “We are wondering why the directorate does not have a timeframe for importation.

The Sugar Directorate issued permits to all private millers to import 150,000 tonnes of the commodity ahead of the expiry of the Common Market for Eastern and Central Africa (Comesa) duty-free window.

Agriculture and Food Authority director-general Alfred Busolo said millers would be operating below their installed capacity in the next 12 months. He said there was a need to cover for the shortfall.

Millers will be required to brand imported sugar with their names but they will have to indicate the country of origin, he said.

Kenya is facing a shortage of 1.9 million tonnes of sugar following the recent drought that affected sugar cane growing zones.

The sugar industry reported a 34 per cent decrease in production between January and May.