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January 24, 2019

Misery in Webuye as Pan Paper remains shut

A section of rotting machinery at the collapsed Pan Paper Mills in Webuye town. Photo/Mathews Ndanyi
A section of rotting machinery at the collapsed Pan Paper Mills in Webuye town. Photo/Mathews Ndanyi

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.

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