THINGS FALL APART

How collapse of sugar factory has turned Mumias into ghost town

Miller has fallen into hard times, finding itself in financial doldrums.

In Summary
  • Absent are the many hawkers who used to vend farm inputs and other wares on the streets. 
  • Mumias sugar belt received Sh20 million cash flow every week, which is no more.
Mumias Sugar factory.
LYING IDLE: Mumias Sugar factory.
Image: HILTON OTENYO

Mumias town was once vibrant; teeming with traders and buyers. Money was the last worry in many a farmer's mind.

The economy of the town and its environ was supported by Mumias Sugar Company. But the miller has fallen into hard times, finding itself in financial doldrums.

Mumias town and its environs are slowly turning into ghost towns as cash flows dry up. The company has laid off workers and farmers no longer make a living from selling cane to the miller. 

 

“The income from cane farming was superb those days and the loss of income has affected many families and we’re still pondering the next move,” said Musa Ekaya, a cane farmer Block Ekero/37 in Lumino village in Mumias East sub-county.

Farmers still hope the once vibrant miller will roar back to life one day.

Ekaya says farmers were assured of quality seed, fertiliser for planting and top dressing and extension services.  As such, harvests were bumper. 

“I used to earn Sh270,000 on harvest and we had no worries. But the last time Mumias paid me before going down I earned Sh68,000 which cannot sustain me for the two years and enable me to buy farm inputs,” he said.

Shibale centre, right opposite the company's entrance, sprung up thanks to the high cash flow and booming business sustained by the thousands of Mumias Sugar employees. Now it is a pale shadow of its former self, with buildings wasting away unoccupied.

Absent are the many hawkers who used to vend farm inputs and other wares on the streets. The once crowded banking halls, teeming with farmers withdrawing their money after harvest time, are now virtually empty. 

I used to earn Sh270,000 on harvest and we had no worries. But the last time Mumias paid me before going down I earned Sh68,000 which cannot sustain me for the two years and enable me to buy farm inputs
Farmer Musa Ekaya

Ekaya says though he still plants sugar cane, he now sells his harvest to private companies.

 

Other farmers have stopped growing sugar cane and switched to maize farming, which they say is not as lucrative. 

One such farmer is Mzee Ali Malichi, who had two acres of sugar cane.

“We never used to care about expenditures such as school fees because money was there but today we have nothing. Even Mumias town is not the town we once knew,” he says.

“I used to earn between Sh90,000 and Sh70,000 after harvest after waiting for between 21 and 24 months. Our problems started when our cane would be harvested and delivered, and you received debit instead. This forced farmers to quit cane farming.” 

Malichi says he harvests between 13 and 15 bags of maize per acre, which is not enough to provide the much-needed cash to meet his financial obligations.

In an interview, Malichi says former employees and other people who had invested in real estate are counting losses as most of the houses they built are vacant while some have been vandalised.

Thousands have lost their jobs in and outside Western as a result of the miller's misfortunes. The company had more than 9,000 employees in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the number is now down to less than 900.

Other tens of thousands who served on a temporary basis such as cane cutters are now jobless, forced to find alternatives.

The then Mumias Sugar Savings and Credit Co-orperative Society (Mossaco) paid an everage of Sh15 million to farmers weekly while Mumias Outgrowers Company (MOCO) paid another Sh5 million weekly, under the 15 percent retention scheme.

This meant that the Mumias sugar belt received Sh20 million cash flow every week, which is no more. Now it's just a few people depending on the activities of the county government.

Mzee Ismael Makokha, who has had four acres since 1970 in Lureko/1, says he still hopes the factory will be revived.

“In those days, my garage was doing business but today there are very few vehicles that are brought for repairs. Most people have grounded their vehicles and the workload is too low,” says the 75-year-old mechanic.

“We’re just waiting to see smoke from the factory because Mumias town is dying.” 

The Kakamega government, which has been promoting diversification among residents, has introduced dairy, tea and poultry farming to prevent over-reliance on a single crop. These are yet to pick up.

The takeover of the company by Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) Group, one of the miller's lenders, dampened any hopes of reviving it.

The company lacks enough raw material to sustain its operations due to poaching of its contracted cane farmers by rival millers coupled with disillusionment, which has driven many farmers to stop growing sugar cane.

The firm has also blamed illegal cheap sugar imports flooding the market for its poor performance. 

Efforts by the national government to turn around the miller’s fortunes have been unsuccessful, even after sinking in Sh3.7 billion.

A task force appointed by Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya to come up with a revival strategy cited poor governance, heavy borrowing and investments in projects that never gave returns, high cost of production and a poor farming model as some of the causes of miller's problems.

The report also points at financial malpractice, including double procurement, single sourcing, overstating of books of account, inflated commercial activities, printing books and fliers with known fraudulent companies compounded with poor record-keeping.

A task force appointed by President Uhuru Kenyatta in December last year to recommend how best to revive the ailing sugar sector is yet to hand in its report.

It is hoped that the national government will act on its recommendations and give the farmers hope.

Edited by Josephine M. Mayuya

Mumias Sugar Company entrance.
TROUBLED: Mumias Sugar Company entrance.
Image: HILTON OTENYO