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Rural Communities Struggle as Sugar Firms Shut Down, Leaving Farmers and Workers in Limbo.

In the Nyanza and Western Kenya sugar belts, sugarcane farmers and workers are facing a tough time as the sugar manufacturing plants have suspended production.

The biting sugarcane shortage has led to the suspension of the production of sugar in the country for three months to allow millers to engage farmers on how to rapidly develop cane for crushing.

The directive by the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) which was issued on Thursday 13th during a stakeholder meeting chaired by AFA Ag Director (sugar directorate), Jude Chesire, has led to major sugar millers suspending operations, leaving a skeleton staff to run essential duties.

Nzoia Sugar Company, along with West Kenya, Butali, Mumias, Kibos, and Busia sugar factories, have been forced to temporarily halt their operations due to a shortage of raw material.

The Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) decided to suspend sugar production for four months to ensure that the sugarcane crops mature during the period. West Kenya Sugar Company announced closure of milling plant on Friday while Butali Sugar Mills stopped milling on Monday.

The Butali Sugar Mills will stop operations for an indefinite period.  “We will carry out maintenance work during this period,” said Butali’s managing director Sanjay Patel.

But Kenya Federation of Sugarcane Farmers deputy secretary general Simon Wesechere said the decision was ill-advised.

He said the move was insensitive to those who depend on the sugar factories for their livelihoods including farmers, cane cutters and other staff.

“You can’t shut down milling across the country if you have a working system. The decision is bad for other industry players. We know that this is meant to allow room for importers whose cheap imports are already in the high seas to land their consignments which is neither good for the farmers or the industry at large,” he said.

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Also, he said that the closure could be another avenue for the millers to sack employees.

Kenya Sugarcane Growers Association Secretary General Richard Ogendo said most members had cane between 10-15 months which needed at least three months to mature.

The growing number of new sugar mills in the Western and Nyanza regions has escalated the issue of shortage of raw material. Additionally, the number of cane farmers has been declining while the number of factories has increased, leading to dependency on a small group of remaining cane farmers.

The situation worsened when the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) removed cane zoning. These allowed factories to source cane from anywhere without regulation. As a result, the factories are now struggling to harvest enough cane exhausting the mature cane reserves.

Kenya Association of Sugarcane and Allied Products (Kasap) chairman Charles Atyang termed the directive as timely, saying it would have come earlier as there was a severe cane shortage following the sub-sector’s neglect for years.

“The sugar shortage problem is not a surprise. The truth is the National Government has never factored substantial amounts to develop the sugar sub-sector in the National Budget for the past four years. This has frustrated the efforts of cane development, especially by the five State-owned millers,” said Atyang.

The crisis in the sugar subsector has been blamed on the chaotic operations of the sector following the repealing of the Sugar Act. The repealing moved the Kenya Sugar Board that was mandated to regulate the industry to AFA where it operates as a directorate.

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Historically, Kenyan sugar factories have not been able to meet market demands even at their best, resulting in a reliance on sugar imports to bridge the gap.

In response to the inadequate sugar crisis, the Kenyan government opened an import window in December 2022, allowing duty-free sugar imports of 100,000 metric tons from outside the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) region. This move aimed to mitigate the impending sugar shortage in the country.

Kenya, being a member of Comesa, does not impose duties on sugar imports from other partner states. The government further approved the duty-free importation of 200,000 metric tons of sugar in May, in addition to significant imports of maize and rice to address the looming food crisis.

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