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Graft, impunity at heart of high sugar production cost

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By EDWIN OKOTH
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Sugar cane farmers have been left at the mercy of unscrupulous cartels who have taken the sector hostage, turning the multibillion sub-sector into a field of misery.

The farmers are forced to pay the cartels for the same services they are charged by the millers — a double tragedy that makes sugar production in Kenya expensive and unprofitable.

Once upon a time, sugar cane growing in Kenya was an easy and lucrative trade. All that a farmer within the sugar belt was required to do was to own land.

By then, most of the capital-intensive operations were taken care of by the millers and later by well-funded co-operative societies, leaving the farmer with the role of taking care of the cane and waiting for cash after 18 months. That has changed.

After the millers started delaying payments for cane delivered and farmers sank into debts, the business chain was open to cartels — a ruthless network that now controls the entire production chain and even grows bigger at the tail end of the chain where the final product is involved.

This network, Nation has established, starts at the land preparation stage where the few tractor owners, drivers and managers demand “inducement” to prioritise the farms to be prepared first.

Brokers have also emerged in the supply of seed cane which they sometimes source from the millers who previously would supply the farmers directly. More so, inputs like the subsidised fertiliser is hard to come by. Farmers told us that you must know someone and if not, you are forced to purchase the commodity from the local agro vets at a high price, thanks to the brokers.

During harvesting, the farmer who has been spending time and money on the cane farm is pregnant with hopes of having the cane delivered to the miller and finally earning from it. It is not that smooth-sailing.

In the Nyando Sugar belt, the term chuth ber is so common, one may mistake it for a cane processing jargon. The Dholuo word which literally means ‘in advance or beforehand’ is used by the harvesting stakeholders to refer to the bribes farmers have to pay to ensure their crops are harvested and delivered to the mills.

“The first line of chuth ber is what you need to pay to the harvesting officers at the factory to list your cane for harvesting, if you don’t, it is not surprising to see your cane over-maturing while younger cane adjacent to your farm is harvested and then delivered,” said Mr Mike Agano, a farmer whose cane had hit 21 months and is located just 3.5 kilometres from Muhoroni Sugar Company.

This company, which shut down operations for half a year due to lack of canes, is accused by many farmers of practicing helicopter harvesting — the practice of harvesting cane from one farm amid a huge plantation area and leaving others which are adjacent to it, then moving to another area.

Once the factory has allocated their contracted harvesting firms to cut cane from the farms, the harvesters have their own form ofchuth ber, and they too demand some payment and extra facilitation — including water and sometimes food — to cut the cane.

It is how much one pays their leader that determines, not how fast the cane will be cut, but how well. A few inches above the base wastes the crop and leaves farmers with added task of chopping off the stalks to allow the cane sprout afresh.

It does not end here. The transport element has its own double chuth ber element; first to have the cane lifted and to have it carefully delivered. Farmers who have failed to play ball here end up with lots of cane left at the farm or recklessly delivered with lots of wastage on the way. At worst, the cane is left to dry in your farm; further compounding the loss.

A 2016/2017 Sugar Research Institute annual report said that cut cane takes up to 21 days after cutting to the time it is delivered to the mill. The period referred to as the “cut-mill interval” is responsible for loss of up to 20 per cent of the cane weight. The financial cost of the long chain of chuth bers is among possible contributors to Kenya’s uncompetitive cost of production.

Tomorrow: Nation investigates zoning, faceless farmers and the rusty cane mills in the sugar belt

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