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September 22, 2018

Farmers reminisce about good old days when sugar paid

A tractor arranges sugar cane stalks at an open yard within the Mumias sugar factory in western Kenya February 24, 2015. Photo/REUTERS
A tractor arranges sugar cane stalks at an open yard within the Mumias sugar factory in western Kenya February 24, 2015. Photo/REUTERS

When Mumias Sugar was robust, Mzee Ramadhan Olalie, 80, was one of the many transporters contracted to haul cane from various out-growers.

With five, lorries, business was good and he could easily meet his financial obligations.

Things took a bad turn and five years ago, when he was forced to close shop as the factory that provided direct employment to thousands of people in Western Kenya went down on its knees.

“I had five lorries that I used to ferry sugarcane after my Omwitsa Transporters Company was contracted to transport cane by Mumias. However, the business became unsustainable when the company started having issues after years of smooth run,” Olalie says.

Olalie said on a good day, each of the trucks would make three to four trips, earning him good money, which he says made him live well.

“Later, the business started staggering because we would transport cane to the factory but payments delayed for longer periods, sometimes running into months. It then became difficult to pay workers and maintain the trucks forcing me to close shop and stay at home,” he said.

Olalie said in the 1990s, when "Mumias was Mumias", an estimated Sh5 million circulated daily within Mumias town and the satellite centers of Shibale, Mayoni, Ekero and Shianda.

Olalie, who was also a cane farmer, said he uprooted his drop in early 2000, when the company started experiencing financial problems. He has since subdivided the land to his sons, who have no interest in cane farming.

He remembers how Mumias town and the satellite centers had booming 24-hour economies due to continuous activities at the factory.

“There was a lot of money in circulation then because the employees were on duty 24-7 and truck drivers, who either delivered material to the company or collected sugar, sustained the day and night business in Mumias,” he said.

He added because of the booming economy, promiscuity was also high and many workers died of HIV-Aids.

“What you see at Shibale is a pale shadow of itself.  You could not find a residential house there. They had all been booked and there was no day or night," he said.

Olalie said the centre is now almost a ghost town due to lack of money.

He said bar operators made good money and to stay on top of the game, one had to employ "beautiful Ugandan women, who served you while on their knees".

 

FARMER

Simon Wesechere started enjoying the benefits of sugarcane farming when he was 12.  He assisted his parents to tend the crop and enjoyed a good life when the payment came.

Wesechere, 52, vividly recollects the days when his father would leave home with a bag to go and receive his pay from the miller.

He said parents comfortably paid their children's school fees from the proceeds.

“Those days have since been replaced by fear as currently farmers to go to their banks, when their crop is harvested because they will either find empty accounts or encounter negative returns popularly known in the area as DRs ,” he said.

Wesechere planted his own cane in 2005 on a two-and-half acre piece of land and was paid Sh67,000 from his first harvest.

“I envisaged living a better live like we did when my father was supplying cane to the company but was shocked when on the second harvest, I was told I owed the company Sh3,000,”.

Initially, he thought the crop husbandry was the problem that reduced his tonnage per unit area and did his best. He, however, but continued to receive less and less earnings. This forced him to reduce the acreage under the crop from three acres to one.

He said trouble begun when almost every farmer started earning DRs because of over deductions by the company. 

“I left my job as a veterinary officer decided to do consultancy and fight for sugarcane farmers’ rights. We came together as farmers and formed Mumias Sugarcane Farmers Association but we faced a lot of resistance from the management,” he said.

It was after this that many farmers started uprooting the crop and ventured into dairy and maize farming.

Wesechere has planted more cane, which he supplies to privately owned West Kenya Sugar Company in Malava subcounty.

Henry Muliru sadly narrates how he lost more than 50 per cent of his business when the company's fortunes took a nosedive.

“I had a bookshop which was doing well but it closed three years ago because there were no customers as soon as the company troubles begun,” Muiri said.

He also stopped ferrying farmers cane, saying payments became a problem.

 

PRIVATE MILLERS

Raphael Welimo, a farmer from Matungu, said though private millers have partly solved the problem by buying cane from farmers formerly contracted by MSC, and paying promptly, the relationship between the two parties is not guaranteed.

“Though the coming of private millers has assisted by buying cane from us, they lack allegiance to the farmer because they are buying from people they have no contract with or spend money to develop the crop,” he said.

The farmer is at the mercy of privately owned mills because they are under no obligation to buy the crop.

Welimo said farmers have been left on their own after the ailing Mumias Sugar Company contributed to the death of Mumias Out-growers Company — which provided extension and other services to cane farmers — and Mumias Out-growers Savings and Credit Society which helped farmers save and extended loans. 

He said many farmers have taken to growing maize bust still face other challenges.

 

FACTORY SHUT  

The once premier miller has remained shut down since April for lack of raw materials to sustain its operations. It has on many occasions blamed this on cane poaching by its rivals.

The Kenya National Federation of Sugarcane Farmers puts the number of cane farmers still loyal to MSC at less than 20,000 from 100,000 when the factory’s performance was at its peak

The company earlier had an inbuilt crushing a capacity of between 3,000 and 3,500 tonnes of cane daily but this was expanded by the installation of the diffuser technology, which pushed this to 8,000 tonnes.

Mumias is chocking under bank loans amounting to over Sh12 billion, while the amount owed to farmers currently stands at more than Sh600 million. 

The firm, with a staff establishment of 1,400 permanent and contracted employees, is toying with the idea of retrenching 900 staff members as part of restructuring.

 

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