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Time is ripe to revive local sugar industry



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The latest report exposing the sorry state of the local sugar industry should jolt the government into action. The industry has suffered for years due to shady trade practices, neglect, lack of political goodwill and application of old technology and agricultural practices.

The industry’s decline began in the 1980s with the onset of market liberalisation, which saw the entry of the commodity and other substitutes from other parts of the world.

Unfortunately, as the market opened up, Kenya continued with its traditional mode of growing sugarcane and producing and selling sugar.

Whereas other countries opted for quick-yielding sugarcane, Kenya continued with the traditional species that took nearly two years to mature, prolonging the production period and incurring high input costs.

Added to this was the use of old technologies for farming and processing the crop, making the enterprise uncompetitive. Besides, other producers, like the South American countries, shifted to other sources of sugar such as beet.

Matters took a turn for the worse when political meddlers and wheeler dealers entered the scene and began interfering with management of sugar factories that were largely run by the State and influenced crop marketing, distribution and pricing. Unlike other crops, such as coffee and tea, that were prioritised, sugar was relegated to the periphery.

Worse, managers of sugar factories went into a looting spree and nearly grounded most of them.

Put together, all these worked to demolish the production and trade in the crop. And that marked the decline of the fortunes of thousands of farmers and their families.

The sugarcane-growing zone of Nyanza and western regions have never recovered from the misfortune of a collapsed industry.

As aptly captured in the report, resuscitating the sugar industry requires well-thought-out strategies and commitment from the government.

Growing sugarcane and trading in sugar in this day and age requires modern technology and farming techniques, including shifting to cane species that mature quickly.

All along, the government has pushed for the sale of public-owned sugar factories such as Chemelil, Muhoroni, Nzoia, Sony and Mumias.

Arguably, most of these entities are obsolete and cannot compete and its sensible to sell them. But that must be thought through properly.

It would be imprudent to offload them cheaply just because the government is divesting from them.

Kenya has great potential to grow sugarcane on a large scale and export sugar to earn good revenues. This is the time to make a political and economic decision to go big on sugar production and apply all resources and energies to achieve that.