Days numbered for looters of sugar millers’ millions

Sunday November 18 2018

sugar cane

A farmer harvests sugar cane at his farm in Koru, Kisumu County on November 7, 2018. Most farmers in Nyando sugar belt say they do not support zoning in the industry and are calling on stakeholders to give them freedom to sell their produce to the highest bidder. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI 

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Attention is now shifting to those responsible for the sorry state of public sugar millers’ financial affairs, even as a task force appointed to explore revival means embarks on the tough journey.

Mr Stephen ole Narupa, the national treasurer of the Kenya National Federation of Sugar cane Farmers is now calling on the government to take action against individuals who stole money and impoverished farmers.

While Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri gave a 30-day period for the team to submit their findings and recommendations, stakeholders have said that precautions should be taken to save more public funds from going down the drain.

“To give confidence to the stakeholders, the government should instead attach the assets and recover stolen money from officials who looted public funds,” said Mr Narupa. He expressed doubt that the 16-member team would turn around the sector whose fortunes have steadily dwindled over the years.

“I challenge the counties to also take advantage of the infrastructure and human capital to invest in the factories, which have been run down due to years of neglect,” said Mr Narupa, who is also the chairman of Transmara Farmers’ Federation.

His concerns come as President Uhuru Kenyatta acknowledged the inconsistency of the woes of the public millers while their private sector rivals thrive, as he met western Kenya leaders at State House last month.

The President attributed the downfall to laxity and misuse of billions of funds pumped into the publicly owned millers by his and previous administrations.

“There is nothing to show for the Sh20 to Sh25 billion that the government has allocated the sugar sector in the last 16 years. he money has not been utilised prudently,” he said. The Kiunjuri task force is expected to identify issues affecting farmers and come up with solutions to make the sector competitive again as it seeks ways of addressing past, present and emerging challenges in the industry.

Kenya Union of Sugar Plantation Workers General (Kuspaw) Secretary Francis Wangara, on the other hand, backed the revival of the public mills to sustain the livelihoods of over six million people who depend on the sweetener, both directly and indirectly.

He said it was unfortunate that Kenyan factories are producing less than 40 per cent of local demand and stressed the need to support state-owned sugar millers. He said, the Sh2.6 billion that the millers owe farmers was regrettable and called on the government to establish better management to turn around the fortunes of the once lucrative sugar sector.

Mr Wangara pointed out that farmers from the sugar belt have no other alternative and called on the government to restore the mills as one of the ways of ensuring achievement of manufacturing — one of the Big Four agenda.

The task force will also evaluate importation of sugar and taxation structures while undertaking a comparative assessment of the industry’s competitiveness in the East African Community, the Common Markets for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), as well as world markets.

The team will also undertake an absolute and comparative assessment of the sugar industry's competitiveness in the East African Community, the COMESA region and globally.

This happens as leaders from sugar producing regions have rejected the national government's proposals on privatisation of state-owned sugar firms and delayed the plan by the Privatisation Commission to sell off the companies.

Kenya has been enjoying safeguards from COMESA for over a decade as privatisation was one of the conditions agreed upon ahead of opening up the market. In July, during the 20th COMESA summit in Lusaka, Kenya was granted another two-year extension of the sugar safeguards by COMESA until February 2021.

The country’s sugar deficit is estimated to have increased from 210 tonnes to 250 tonnes, which will increase the shares of sugar exporting COMESA member states. The Agriculture CS also indicated that the task force is also expected to table recommendations on whether or not to privatise.