Emily Otieno wears a long face as a worker packs her alcohol stock in a Toyota Probox.
Otieno is moving part of her wines and spirits business from Awendo town to a new premise she has opened at Masara center about 60km away to target gold prospectus as the sugarcane industry, which propped her business is collapsing.
In an interview with the Star, she spoke of the good old days when the nearby Sony Sugar Company was operating fully and led to booming business in Awendo town. They are now gone.
“They were good days. We used to manage a stock of at least Sh50,000. Business was brisk, but things are slowing down and we are now looking at the gold sector,” Otieno said.
She plans to run the two operations as she monitors how Sony Sugar, which provided a lifeline to many in Awendo and the larger Migori county, performs.
“We used to see smoke from the miller’s chimney from my shop here. It was a sign of life. We don’t see it anymore since for the last two days, the machines have stalled,” she said.
Five kilometers away, at Manyatta trading centre, Maurice Adede, a sugarcane farmer is anxiously waiting for his Sh50,000 payment from the miller for the cane delivered in March.
Adede said he was not sure when he will be paid, since his six-year contract with Sony Sugar ended. He is now on a temporary contract.
“They delayed my attempts to extend my contract. Now, my cane is getting longer be harvested but I never get supplied with inputs and payment takes longer,” Adede said.
He said the influx of imported sugar, plans to privatise state-owned sugar factories and corruption has made sugarcane farming less lucrative.
“We are alone out here. Sugarcane farming is never what it used to be. With the entry of two private millers, we thought things would be better. But they also import sugar further killing us,” he said.
Kenya National Federation of Sugarcane Farmers secretary general, Ezra Olodi said farmers input on key issues affecting the sugar sector has been ignored by government.
He said on June 28-29 during a high-level sugar industry meeting, which was convened by Agriculture CS Mwangi Kiunjuri in Nairobi. However, out of the 10 representatives, none was a farmer.
In a resolution signed by Kiunjuri and Council of Governors’ Agriculture Committee chairman and Migori Governor Okoth Obado, several obstacles ailing the sector were cited.
These include low cane supply, cane poaching, ageing equipment and obsolete technology and importation of sugar
Others were high debt portfolio of government millers, farmers arrears, salary arrears and non remittance of deductions, lack of regulations, poor corporate governance and lack of sector funding.
“The people who are immediately suffering are us farmers, but we were never represented at the meeting. We don’t trust our leaders as they didn’t speak when the Sugar Development Levy was scrapped,” Olodi said.
The levy was used to improve obsolete mills, improve infrastructure, train farmers and extend loans.
Olodi said the sugarcane sector still has a chance to grow if the mills diversify to produce electricity, paper and water.
In an earlier interview with the Star, Sony Sugar managing director Bernard Otieno said by December, millers in the country were operating below 50 per cent of their grinding capacity due to cane shortage.
Over 10 millers in the country have been hit by low production, with some already closing down for “routine maintenance”, while others operate at minimum capacity because of the shortage.
“We are currently operating only four days in week, which is better than most millers, who only operate twice a week with others closing shop completely,” Otieno said.
According to government data, the country millers can only produce 60,000 metric tonnes of table sugar in a month against the requirement of 65,000 metric tonnes in a moth with the deficit being imported.