Misery in Webuye as Pan Paper remains shut

A section of rotting machinery at the collapsed Pan Paper Mills in Webuye town
A section of rotting machinery at the collapsed Pan Paper Mills in Webuye town

Seven years since the last machine

was turned off at Pan African Paper

Mills in Webuye, life has been taking

a downturn for many families in the

Western Kenya town.

For a first-time visitor it is evident

Webuye town, which was once bubbling

with activities, is now rife with

poverty and hopelessness.

The factory that stood like a pillar

of life in the midst of the town

has collapsed, causing many of the

town’s homes to be deserted.

The

vandalised and rusting machines at

the mills resemble a monument that

is a stark reminder of the better past

which, it seems, may never return.

With a population of more than

100,000 residents, Webuye town has

suffered massive effects from the collapse

in 2009 of what was East Africa’s

largest paper manufacturer.

Residents here were used to the

dark, thick smoke, roaring machines

and heavy industrial stench that

engulfed the skies, bellowing from

chimneys at Pan Paper.

Today, however,

they wake up to a silent environment,

clear sky and breathe fresh

air.

Life has changed drastically, residents

say.

“We just thought it was a joke that

time, seven years ago. But we have

waited in vain and now many of us

have accepted the fact that it will

take a miracle for Pan Paper to roar

back to life. The company collapsed

and shuttered our lives,” says Ronald

Wekesa, a former employee of the

company who now ekes out a living

from being a boda boda operator in

the town.

Wekesa, who was a store staff at

the company for 25 years, says many

people in Webuye are counting losses

because Pan Paper literally drove the

economy of the town.

“Many people relied on this company

and since it collapsed many of

them walk like sick people because

life changed for the worst,” he says.

Wekesa, like the more than 2,500

former employees, was sent home

without benefits.

He has given up

hope of receiving a pension or savings

from the firm’s sacco.

Wekesa earned about Sh25,000

monthly from the company but now

he hardly makes Sh6,000 per month

from his boda boda business because

the collapse of the company affected

most of the residents in Webuye.

Schools, hotels, hardware shops,

sporting activities and even the

once-vibrant mitumba markets shut

down as the economy of Webuye

was brought to its knees.

Evidence of

this is all over the town, which spots

many abandoned businesses.

The government pumped close to

Sh1 billion to revive the company under

retired President Mwai Kibaki’s

regime, but the plan was not successful

as debtors demanded more than

Sh5 billion for supplies and services.

The state was a major shareholder

in the firm and President Uhuru Kenyatta

and Industrialisation CS Adan

Mohamed visited Webuye two years

ago promising to revive the factory,

but there has been no word since.

“We know there have been very

good efforts by the government to revive Pan Paper, but we also understand

there are so many challenges.

We still have hope,” Bungoma Governor Kenneth Lusaka says.

“We are

ready to work with the government

or any stakeholder willing to put back

life into that firm.”

Lusaka says Webuye was the industrial

town of Bungoma and Pan Paper the main firm in the region but with

its collapse, the county lost more than

Sh100 billion which circulated in its

economy annually.

He says Webuye’s

economy slumped by more than 80

per cent and life in the town is miserable.

Michael Mang’oli worked at the

paper mill’s finishing house for 30

years.

He is among those who pray

for God’s intervention to save them

from lives of agony.

For survival he

has opened a mitumba business at

the firm’s gate as he awaits what he

calls the “white smoke” signalling the

return of Pan Paper.

Manuj Shah, who runs a supermarket,

plans to relocate by June because

of low profits.

Pan African Paper accounted for

almost 60 per cent of the market

for paper and industrial packaging

grades of paperboard in Kenya.

The story of Pan Paper is a bitter tale

few residents of Webuye town would

like to hear.

But in their midst stands

the rotting remnants of the company

and every day as residents watch the

sunset across the hills of Chetambe,

it, perhaps, serves as a reality check

that Pan Paper is indeed dead.

Dead

with many lives in Webuye town.