In the sugar cane fields of western Kenya, farmers complain that falling prices mean they can barely make ends meet. Yet rival African producers can still offer cheaper supplies.
With much of the production coming from small rain-fed plots rather than large irrigated plantations, costs are much higher than Kenya’s competitors.
And the country’s higher altitude means its growing cycle can be up to 24 months, double some of its rivals.
The government has sought to protect the industry since 2003 by limiting imports.
But critics say that instead of making it more efficient, the protection has fostered mismanagement and smuggling. It has also delayed reforms such as privatisation and modernisation of an industry on which 4 million Kenyans depend.
“There is a lot that needs to be done,” said Simon Wesechere, a farmer and senior official in the Kenya National Federation of Cane Farmers. “It leaves a sour taste in the mouth of farmers because it is registering negative returns.”
Elly Keya, a farmer in the western Mumias region who tills land his father has worked since 1972, said the soil needed more fertiliser due to falling productivity. But prices for each tonne of cane had slid to 3,200 shillings now from 4,000 shillings in 2003.
“Farmers are suffering because returns have really gone down,” Keya said.
Kenya’s problems take place amid a difficult global scenario. World benchmark sugar prices have struggled hugely over the past four years against a backdrop of excess supply, with ICE Raw Sugar hitting six year lows last week.
Kenya produces about 60 tonnes of cane per hectare, half that of some members of the eastern and southern African trade bloc COMESA such as Zambia and South Africa. Overall, a tonne of sugar costs about $600 to produce in Kenya, double other COMESA countries.
Kenya consumes about 800,000 tonnes of sugar a year, while production is about 600,000 tonnes. The rest is imported but duty-free imports are capped around 200,000 tonnes under a deal with COMESA to protect Kenyan producers.
The deal, first agreed in 2003, has been rolled over regularly. In March, Kenya requested a two-year extension. But other COMESA members are tiring of the requests, experts say.
“Politically, it is going to be very difficult to have another extension,” said David Owiro, programme officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Kenya had not reformed the industry but instead protection meant securing import licences had become a quick route to riches and smuggling had thrived, he said.
Costs could be brought down, possibly to $400 a tonne or less if production shifted to irrigated plantations and used new factories, experts said. The government could also sell stakes in sugar plants to private business.
Such moves carry political costs, however, potentially hurting farmers with smallholdings who have relied on cane production for years in the crowded west of Kenya.
“The government has been pumping in money year after year trying to revive those factories,” said Mohamed Noor, chairman of parliament’s agriculture committee. “It is the livelihood of the entire region and that is why the government has been sticking with it but it is not going anywhere.”
Mumias Sugar, which accounts for 30 per cent of Kenyan production, symbolises much of what is wrong with Kenya’s sugar industry.
The government, with a 20 per cent stake, injected 500 million Kenyan shillings ($5.4 million) into the firm in January after it lost 2.08 billion shillings in the period July to December, five times bigger than a year earlier.
Executives were sacked after an audit by KPMG prompted investigations into sugar sale and importation transactions.
Dan Ameyo, the chairman who ordered the audit after he was appointed last year, wants to set Mumias Sugar on a new course. If successful, it could point the way for the wider industry.
“I’m determined to return the company to profitability and I’m determined to clean it up,” he told Reuters.
The industry needed to “privatise, diversify and be competitive,” he said.
He has appointed headhunters to find new executives.
“You have to get people who can inject change,” he said.
Mumias has diversified, using molasses to produce ethanol, which has industrial and fuel uses. It is turning by-products of sugar manufacturing into electricity with a 36 megawatt (MW) power plant, with 26 MW sold to the national grid.
The company has said it could buy government-owned factories and was considering developing sugar plants using supplies from irrigated plots along the Tana River, which flows to the coast.
“Kenya can compete with other COMESA countries if we have proper regulations to govern the industry,” Ameyo said. “If we don’t get Mumias right, 30 per cent of production of sugar in this country is at stake.”