Webuye town roars back to life with revival of paper mill

Twelve years ago, the premier paper miller in East and Central Africa went dead, leading to the loss of jobs

In Summary

• Markets that had collapsed when the factory closed down like Sango, Dina, Mwananch, Mulembe are coming back to life.

• The company, currently milling 1,500 tonnes of paper daily, has created employment for 500 people, most of them locals.

A forklift loads a reels of paper onto the truck at the Webuye Pan Paper mills
A forklift loads a reels of paper onto the truck at the Webuye Pan Paper mills

Webuye is one of the most vibrant, liveliest and warmest towns in the country.

But unlike many other towns in Kenya that have their economies anchored on industries, Webuye town's lifeline relies heavily on the existence of Pan Paper mill.

Twelve years ago, the once premier paper miller in East and Central Africa went dead due to alleged mismanagement. This devastated the thousands of people who depended on its existence.

Employment and business opportunities were lost, markets closed down and schools suffered low enrolment as a result.

However, life is slowly returning to normalcy following the takeover of the mill by the Rai Group in 2016.

The mill has been operating for at least three years now, having resumed working in mid-2018.

The revival of the paper mill has increased the cash flow in Webuye town and markets that had collapsed when the factory closed down. Markets like Sango, Dina, Mwananchi and Mulembe are back in business.

Schools that suffered low enrolment after employees withdrew their children after losing their jobs are slowly but steadily returning to normalcy.

Webuye AC primary, St Mathew secondary, St Joseph primary, PAG primary are among the learning institutions that were affected by the closure of the factory.

Former employees and residents of Webuye are impressed with the developments at the factory.

The company, currently milling 1,500 tonnes of paper daily, has created employment for 500 people, most of them locals.

A huge chunk of employees who served in the previous regime was recalled by the current management. 

Wellington Omido is among the 469 former employees who were recalled. Omido joined Pan Paper in 1978 as a trainee supervisor.

At the time the factory was closing, he was the deputy superintendent of stock preparation.

He vividly recalls the devastating experience the then workers went through when the firm went under.

“People had nothing to hold on to. It was a devastating experience. Some died because they could not fit in society jobless,” Omido said.

Johnstone Angoya was also recalled to join the new management. He narrates how he almost refused to honour the invitation to work again with Webuye Pan Paper because of what he had gone through in the past. 

However, he is not regretting the decision to rejoin Pan Paper.

“I have been able to educate one of my children up to university because of the salary I get every month,” Angoya said.

Richard Otieno, another employee who returned to serve under the new management, recalls how employees were asked to go home for three months in January 2009.

They ended up remaining jobless for seven years. This was until they were recalled under the new regime.

He joined the mill in 1989 as a casual employee. By the time the factory was closing down, he was a senior stock preparation operation officer.

James Wechuli, 41, a resident of Sango, is thrilled that the factory has roared back to life again. He said life has returned to Webuye.

With things looking up, the company’s human resource manager Alfred Wafula said they plan to refurbish a clinic and Webuye Stadium for use by employees and residents.

Whereas the rusty chimneys seen from the Eldoret Bungoma road paint a false picture of a failed plant, a lot is happening, including the decommissioning of the corroded parts.

The removal and replacement of asbestos with iron sheets is an ongoing exercise. The process is expected to be completed in under six months.

The new management has said being a chemical processing industry, most of the equipment had corroded beyond repair at the time the new investor came on board.

“This substantially increased the cost of investment required to restart the plant and delayed resumption of operations," Pan African Paper Mills general manager Palanapian Psubramaniam said.

Unlike before, when the factory relied on wood from the forest to produce papers, the current process at Pan-paper is using recycled waste paper as an alternative raw material.

According to the new management, the journey to revamp the plant and return it to its peak days has faced many challenges. A ban on logging being among them.

Just when the factory was about to start direct milling, after many years without functioning, a moratorium was issued in 2018 banning logging in public and community forests.

This directive complicated matters for the Rai Group, which had taken over Pan Paper.

Psubramaniam said the logging ban did not deter them from proceeding with the revival plans.

“We have made substantive investments in the factory and we are continuing to invest in it. We are lucky that Pan Paper was acquired by the Rai Group, which has demonstrated genuine passion and enthusiasm in whatever they do,” the GM said.

 “When we started, most of the equipment like transformers, boilers and paper machines were dilapidated, but we have managed to have them replaced. Very few investors would accept to pump in the amount of capital injection that Rai Group has committed to investing in the mill to ensure it is fully restored.”

The management is encouraging residents to plant trees in anticipation of future high production output.

“It was our desire to have the factory operate. The factory has not been revived fully yet. It’s going to take time because it had idled for many years,” Psubramaniam said.

"We are hopeful that one day the plant will be fully operational under the new management to offer jobs to many people like it was the case before it collapsed.”

At the moment, the factory is producing test liner, kraft liner, ordinary and high-performance fluting medium that are used to make packaging materials, including envelopes.

At least 15 trucks collect kraft liners at Pan African Paper Mill in Webuye daily for transportation to Nairobi.

Edited by A.N

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