A souring sugar industry in Kenya

Malava, Kenya – The essential foods that make up a Kenyan diet are as follows: maize flour, kale, black tea, milk and sugar. Maize flour is used to make ugali, a mashed potato looking brick that is used to eat with chopped and boiled kale. The rest is to make chai, the British import that is consumed multiple times a day.

Sugar cane is a significant cash crop for farmers in western Kenya. Many smallholder farmers will grow maize and a few other vegetables for mostly their own consumption and plant small plots of sugar cane to make money.

Trucks filled with cane travel thorough out the day to the Mumias Sugar Factory. The stacks of cane hang in the open for young people to steal a stalk for immediate consumption and sharing with friends. In some parts of the road to Mumias, the weight of the trucks have left ruts on each side of the road from the passing tires.

Sugar is a valuable crop for Kenyan farmers, but it is wrought with problems. Worse yet, pending changes to trade rules may reduce the value of the crop.

DSC_0018Matthew Miahyo is a sugar cane farmer in the village of Harambe, located a few dozen kilometers north of Kakamega. The sugar cane stalks stand high on his near two acres of land and are nearing harvest. He pulls in roughly 60 tons per acre and sells it at 3,700 KSH per ton.

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The problem is that sugar cane takes eighteen months to grow and produces a significant windfall of cash. Money all at once helps immediate needs, but it does not always last long enough between harvests.

The Kenyan sugar industry is on the verge of a major shift. A tariff that protects domestic sugar makers against foreign imports will be dropped in February 2014. At that point members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) will compete with each other.

The Mumias Sugar Factory in the heart of western Kenya is responsible for producing roughly 60% of the nation’s refined sugar. It will gain the opportunity to export to more countries, but will also face greater competition inside Kenya.

The rest of the sugar industry is still mostly state owned. The government was supposed to have already privatized its sugar holdings, but delays mean that the businesses are vulnerable to the flood of cheaper imports.

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Miahyo is worried about the coming COMESA changes. He heard about it in the news and is planning for the price of sugar cane to drop next year. That makes this haul even more important for him.

“We are seeing the price go down,” he explained. “But it is better than it was three years ago.”

Despite his concerns, Miahyo plans on continuing to plant sugar cane. If the price drops to as low as 2,000 KSH per ton, he will make the transition back to growing maize as a cash crop.

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“People depend on growing maize,” said Bella Muhando, 24, a neighbor from a few houses down.

She works as a secretary, but her family relies on the sugar cane for its main source of income. Even her brother, who is a flower grower in Nakuru, maintains a sugar cane farm a day’s drive away to improve on his insufficient wages.

As a maize disease wipes out crops and coming trade changes threaten sugarcane, farmers in Western Kenya are increasingly vulnerable. Progress is evident in the region over the past few years, but it may slide if the worst happens.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.