Farmers in Busia are protesting the importation of sugarcane by local millers from neighbouring Uganda at the expense of their mature crop.
The farmers claim they are incurring huge financial losses as their cane is wasting away in farms due to delayed harvesting. They say that local millers are engaging middlemen who are outsourcing cane from Uganda and ignoring local produce.
The growers now want the government to intervene and stop the importation of sugarcane from Uganda by the middlemen whom they say should give them priority so that their crop is harvested first. They claim the importation has left them with no market for their crop.
On the spot is Busia Sugar Industries in Busibwabo and West Kenya’s Ole Pito Sugar Factory that have opted for the Ugandan cane due to its cheap pricing.
Every day, trucks cross over to Uganda to fetch cane which they deliver to two local sugar factories.
It is a booming business for middlemen operating across the border.
In Uganda, cane is sold at Sh1,500 per ton, making it cheaper for the middlemen to make quick money when they outsource the raw material compared to when it is purchased from the local growers.
Farmers claim that the middlemen demand for kickbacks before they harvest their cane, which they buy at Sh3,500 per ton against the government’s recommended price of Sh4,300.
Those who are unable to part with the kickbacks end up being stuck with mature cane in their farms as they cannot secure harvest permits.
The two millers were given a window by the government to import the raw material from Uganda last August when Kenya entered into a partnership to open up the importation market.
Some farmers have also decried delayed transportation of harvested cane to the factories for crushing, which they claim is a deliberate by millers who want their crop to dry in the farms before it is ferried to the factories.
“We know that when cane dries in the farm, it losses weight but maintains its sucrose content. This is why millers leave it to dry so that it weighs less yet they gain more from the sucrose content,” claimed Ms Francisca Apondi, a farmer from Butula.
Ms Apondi said that when she sold her cane to one of the millers, it was left uncollected for three weeks before being ferried to the factory.
“I ended up getting less than Sh30,000 when I had projected to earn more than Sh200,000. I am worried about the bank loan I took to develop the cane,” she said.
“I feel so bad when I see millers importing cane into the country while we are treated with contempt,” she said, urging the government to rescue local farmers by restricting millers from outsourcing cheap raw materials from Uganda.
Local leaders said the cross-border trade is benefiting Ugandan farmers and impoverishing Kenyan growers who are faced with numerous challenges facing the sugar industry.
Privatisation Commission Chairman Paul Otuoma, former Agricultural Finance Corporation chairman Lucas Meso and Nambale MP John Bunyasi asked millers in Busia to prioritise the interests of local farmers in order to promote the growth of the sugar sector in the country.
Mr Otuoma asked millers to adhere to the guidelines from the Ministry of Agriculture, including the price of cane per ton.
“I urge millers to help the local farmers benefit from their sweat so that they can educate their children. Let millers purchase cane while it is still in the farm without engaging middlemen who threaten farmers to accept cheap prices or boycott purchasing their cane and opt crossing over to Uganda to bring in cheap sugarcane,” said Mr Otuoma.
Busia Sugar Industries Managing Director Ali Taib blamed bad roads in the county for the delay in collecting harvested cane from the farms.
“Where most roads are impassable during rains, it becomes difficult to reach the farms to collect the cane after harvesting. We are forced to wait till the rains subside so that we can fetch cane from the lowlands,” said Mr Taib.
He said the firm has invested a lot in cane development within the county and has no reason not to harvest the cane.
He said as a businessman, he cannot reject raw materials brought for sale to his factory irrespective of where it comes from.