By Vincent Chahale
The exposé done by the Nation Media Group on the collapse of the sugar industry in Western Kenya Sugar Belt caught my attention. Ordinarily, a story on agriculture and farming would not arouse any curiosity or interest on my part, but this one did.
I watched the farmers express their plight and what has bedevilled their once-lucrative source of livelihood. I easily identified with their quandary, having once benefitted from the thriving sugar industry and been a witness to the reality that the sugar belt was once a rich man’s paradise.
Over two decades ago, I was enrolled at a High School, which was located right in the centre of Mumias, a few kilometres from Mumias Sugar Company. It was a good provincial secondary school that was ranked in the top 20 of the best performing schools in the national examinations. I have learnt that it has since lost its good performance and high sense of discipline. I digress.
Naturally, being at the heart of the sugar zone, there were many students who were sons of sugar farmers. We, who had never interacted with farmers before, had an erroneous idea of farmers – emaciated, dishevelled, men in gumboots who carried a jembe, their basic tool of trade, on their shoulder. Their sons, who we schooled with, quickly changed that perception.
These were rich men’s children who fitted the bill perfectly. Their skin was smooth and their cheeks fully rounded showing they lacked for nothing in the world. Their lockers were filled with adequate supply of all the essentials and luxuries needed in a boarding school.
They would offer soft loans to some of us who came from working and middle class families from big towns all over the country. Sometimes, they would write off the loans when it became difficult or impossible to settle. How would one settle a thousand-shilling loan, which may well have been your pocket money for the entire term?
I cannot recall a day when any of these kids were sent home for tuition fee balances. Their fees were paid annually for up to two years in advance upon special arrangements so as to coincide with the 24-month maturity period of sugarcane. It matters little that their fathers would disappear to the coast for weeks after the harvest, where they spent a fraction of the “gold” with Njeris disguised as Halimas. Their needs catered for, it did not hurt if Papa enjoyed some or most of his sweat alone…
Going back to the exposé, the cane farmers who were interviewed were a contrast to the farmers we knew back then. Clearly this industry is in total shambles. Various factors that have led to this include the high cost of production, lack of training of farmers, non implementation of reform laws – some of which have since been repealed without implementation (the Sugar Act, 2003, was never gazetted, for instance) and, like in almost all failing industries in Kenya, cartels – in this case, sugar cartels with connections high up in government.
Undoubtedly, any lucrative industry faces challenges in order to continue thriving, especially in jurisdictions where there is unchecked, high-level corruption.
Leadership is key. I say this because, in my view, political leaders from the Western Zone have persistently been a let-down to their people. The collapse of the sugar industry took place when the region had adequate representation in government, but watched silently as cartels brought it down to its knees. How do you explain the collapse of an industry from a zone that was represented in cabinet for a long period during the Moi and Kibaki eras, with up to 5 members at a time in cabinet?
When engaging in political pacts, what do Luhya leaders negotiate for their people? Surely, sugar is a commodity that is used in every household in Kenya, every day. How can such an industry collapse when the region boasts of adequate representation in the Executive and legislative arms of government?
Recently, some political parties from Western Kenya have folded and joined the ruling Jubilee alliance. I wonder though, was the sugar issue a negotiating item, or was it just about the personal needs of the leaders.
I am not trying to politicise the issue; my grouch is with the failed leadership of Western Kenya. If you think I am being harsh, picture this: why isn’t there a thriving industry in Western Kenya, with great potential, and adequate labour and expertise. The Webuye Paper Factory collapsed and with it the hopes of thousands of people who depended on it directly or indirectly. As a result, careers were shattered, small micro enterprises collapsed, children dropped out of school and young teenage girls eloped with village wags and are now single mothers with no hope in life. The once thriving Webuye Town became a ghost town. All that can now be felt in this once flourishing town is a state of bleakness, misery and desolateness.
Parts of the former Western Province are surrounded by stones, which can be turned into a big economical activity to change the lives of locals. These stones – they can be processed to provide the big towns of Kisumu and Kakamega with raw materials for the booming construction industry – which span all the way from Vihiga to Luanda and parts of Kakamega, have never been harvested.
Needless to say, important materials are to be found in these stones, including as granite, yet the young boys of western province roam in between these stones, waiting for that all-important call up to Nairobi that would secure them a job in some factory in industrial area.
There is a staggering lack of visionary leadership.
The people of Western Kenya still keep indigenous herbivores, some of which can hardly produce two litres of milk in a day. Yet there are sprawling fields of grasslands that can feed thousands of heads of modern, high-yielding cattle. Milk and beef factories would encourage farmers to start keeping hybrid cattle that yield high quantities of milk and meat. None exists in this expansive region and residents have to buy milk all the way from Molo and Limuru. What is it that the people of Molo and Limuru have that those of Western Kenya do not? The answer is good leadership. I could go on and on.
Leadership is about fostering the interests of the people you lead. It is about vision and advocating fiercely every so often for the needs of the people you lead. How can the coffee industry, a commodity that is sparingly consumed in Kenya, be performing better than the Sugar industry? It is abundantly clear that the leaders from the coffee growing areas have taken it upon themselves to make sure that the industry does not collapse because it is the livelihood of the people they lead.
Leaders from the Meru region, where miraa is grown, even engage the destinations of their markets when export of their produce is threatened. One would be hard pressed to point out instances when leaders from the western region have come out to speak against sugar cartels, or engaged government to find some constructive solution to the issues that face their people. Alas, all they do is engage in rhetoric before gullible crowds before they disappear to enjoy their (ill acquired) wealth.
I recall an incident as a State Counsel during my active days of practice when I was having the conduct of brief in the Court of Appeal in some of the sugar matters. The issue, if my memory serves, was some cancelled sugar importation licenses. As we waited for the court to commence its sittings, one of the sugar barons who had attended court picked up his phone and called a high-ranking government official, whom he referred by name. His intention was to demonstrate to me that they had connections high up in government, and that I was wasting my time with my well-researched submissions.
Kenya has enough capacity to produce sugar not only for internal use but to supply the same to our neighbours from far and near. Ironically, we now have to import sugar from countries that have a far lower capacity and potential than we do.
As the sugar story continues to unfold in the next few weeks, I only hope that the exposé will also focus its lens on the failed leadership of the leaders from the sugar belt.