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January 19, 2019

Re-angle Sugar Debate To Bring Out The Truth

Instead of putting President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga and their foot soldiers in a war path, the media especially financial/economics writers should be telling us what whatever was agreed upon (if indeed there was an agreement) means to both Kenya and Uganda and the entire East African region. They should be telling us the state of the sugar industry in Kenya and whether, if indeed sugar is imported from Uganda, the Kenyan sugar industry will collapse further as a result.

They should be telling Kenyans about this Comesa thing, what it says and what it means. They should follow up on the president’s assertion that the balance of trade between the two countries is in favour of Kenya and say whether it makes sense to try and narrow the gap.

They should be telling us whether reviving the sugar industry in Kenya makes sense or whether farmers in the sugar growing belt should be thinking of alternatives, because I believe there is no national or regional pride in cultivating a crop that will never afford the farmers livelihoods.

After days of non-debate, it was however refreshing to listen to two senior editors from one media house and a former chief executive of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers try to put the issue into perspective. The three essentially asked those fueling the debate to stop stoking a trade war with our biggest partner and warned that such chest-thumping and the greed to export more and more without reciprocating, was one of the reasons the original East African Community collapsed.

The three wondered, as I and maybe others have, why the media had not shifted the debate from political rhetoric to the truth and presented well-balanced stories to avoid a trade war with our neighbour and reverse the gains made so far. We heard that Zambia has brought in almost twice the amount of sugar Uganda has exported to this country this year and we import sugar from many other countries. So what is the entire hullabaloo over sugar from Uganda about now if the quantities the country brings in are that negligible?

Apparently what we are not saying is that all this noise is about the inefficiencies of the sugar industry in this country and what the players, government, the politicians and the media should be telling us is how to put in place a comprehensive plan to revive this industry if indeed we must.

Politicians should stop deceiving Kenyans that problems facing the sugar industry are coming from without, while indeed they are within. We must also run away from the fallacy that we can depend on ourselves for everything as a country and that whenever we have a shortage in something, the answer is not to buy from others but to work harder and produce more. We must also up our game as far as the cost of producing goods is concerned which will enable us to compete with sugar producers in Uganda and cattle farmers from Tanzania among other products. These internal production costs and not sugar from Uganda are the real threat to the Kenyan sugar industry.

One of the three panelists in the programme I watched earlier this week, stressed the fact that we can discard what we are unable to produce competitively and bring in the particular commodity from our trading partners in the region, while we export what we are able to produce profitably including the many industrial commodities that we produce. The leaders in the sugar growing belt should actually be looking at the pros and cons of their people growing sugar and if they realize this commodity will keep them poor eternally seriously think of an alternative.

That Kenya will be flooded with sugar from Uganda is a myth as is the lie that sugar from Uganda was previously not allowed into Kenya. The media should tell Kenyans about the customs union and what it allows or does not allow through the borders of the two countries. It should also be explained that as long as factory prices in our neighbouring countries are lower than ours, various commodities, sugar included, will always find its way into the country legally or otherwise through cross-border trade.

Thanks to social media, today many Kenyans can perform basic journalistic tasks. They should go to the internet and cross-check the assertion that Uganda has surplus sugar. The times when crucial documents were read and interpreted for us by political leaders are long gone.


As journalists, I believe we must always endeavor to maintain the highest professional standards and ethics. I may be old fashioned, but I flinched every time when one television personality repeated the question, “what if you don’t make it?” to his interviewee who is a person facing a life-threatening condition.


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