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January 22, 2019

A case of weed versus sugar

Some of the imported sugar in Sony sugar packs.
Some of the imported sugar in Sony sugar packs.

Weed isn’t my thing. I suspect I would like cocaine a lot, so I don’t touch it because my ability to resist temptation is limited and that’s a scenario that would go downhill with a quickness. I refuse to think about coffee in terms of addiction (Caffeine is necessary for several basic body functions. This is science), so that leaves me with sugar. I know white sugar is really not healthy, so I try to limit my sugar intake to where it matters: cake, not sodas. Snickers, not coffee. But you do you.

Sugar is interesting. Such a ubiquitous product. And so highly regulated in international markets. Kenya was supposed to have opened its market to quota-free imports years ago to create a free trade environment. But Kenya’s government has asked repeatedly for extensions, ostensibly to have more time to help its domestic sugar industry become competitive. This process has been noodling away for years and still has not achieved much. There are several reasons for this: producing sugar competitively is difficult indeed, there are ethno-political considerations to propping up the sugar industry in Kenya.

And another reason is the latest installment of the ‘But you guys are so corrupt!’ Afrosinema we’ve been treated to for the past few weeks (is anyone keeping score who’s leading?): Restricting sugar imports creates strong incentives for paying kickbacks for import licenses, and also for sugar smuggling. Sugar is cheap outside of Kenya, and expensive here: good margins to be had. There’s nothing new about this (remember, with all the recent corruption disclosures, these don’t happen because someone wants to eliminate them, but because you’re supposed to see them): This has been going on for ages, and requires co-operation from all sorts of institutions like security, KRA, KEBS.

There are a few clever bunnies like Ababu Namwamba who tweeted that Kenya should just completely shut its borders to sugar imports. This isn’t really carefully considered: For one, it works to the disadvantage of Kenyan sugar consumers (who are more numerous than people working in the sugar industry) as local production is far more expensive. This, I realise, is not much of a concern to Mr Namwamba, now a chief administrative secretary, since he can clearly afford his sugar and whatever else he fancies. It’s not also practical: Kenya’s production capacity does fall short of its demand. And then, as we have seen, it’s an even greater incentive to smuggling.

So there you go. Your sugar is still expensive. It’s possibly dirty. And we do know that it likely comes with a dash of organised crime. Enjoy!



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