Criminal cartels are making millions of shillings by exploiting desperate sugarcane farmers in Western and Nyanza.
Shrewd traders are making huge profits at the expense of growers who toil to produce the key raw material for the manufacturing of the sweetener.
The cartels target farmers who are desperate to harvest their mature cane to avoid losses. They help in processing of permits to ensure the raw material is delivered to millers at throw-away prices.
In some instances, farmers have to pay about Sh9,000 to acquire permits.
But despite acquiring one last year, one farmer had to bribe the cartels again to have his cane harvested. Those who don’t comply are left frustrated.
The middlemen collude with unscrupulous factory workers to delay harvesting. Often, they go round the farms with tractors to buy cane cheaply but deliver it to factories at better prices.
“The corruption in the factories is on another level. Sugarcane farming has turned out to be a bitter pill to swallow for most of us,” said a farmer.
In Kakamega, growers supplying cane to West Kenya Sugar Company and Butali Sugar Mills have suffered the most at the hands of the cartels. They lamented that the brokers are well-known in the region.
“As soon as you have paid the money, things move very fast. You will have the permit processed in a day. They are well connected at the Agricultural departments of sugar millers,” said a farmer.
Mr Jeremiah Akhonya, the secretary of the West Kenya Chapter of the Kenya Union of Sugar Plantation and allied Workers, said he had raised the issue with West Kenya Sugar Company boss Mr Tejveer Rai.
“Mr Rai reported the matter to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) so that farmers who lost their money can record statements. The challenge is that the cartels have issued threats to farmers and made it difficult for investigations to take place,” said Mr Akhonya.
“Those unwilling to cooperate have ended up incurring huge losses because of the delayed harvesting of their cane,” he added.
Butali Sugarcane Farmers Association boss William Kopi said the management was investigating the matter.
“A supervisor at the factory was sacked after a farmer sent him cash through M-Pesa so that he could process the permit and have the cane harvested,” he said.
In Nyanza, farmers have also protested against cartels and middlemen. The unholy alliance between the cartels and factory managers has made acquisition of harvesting permits a nightmare for farmers.
“You need to be well connected to get a harvesting permit and deliver your cane to the factories,” said Mr Wycliffe Biketi from Nzoia. “It’s unfortunate that some of these millers use brokers to intimidate farmers.”
To avoid losses, farmers often resort to selling their cane at throw-away prices. “The cartels are flourishing in Misikhu, Tongaren and Naitiri areas as they walk around the farms to buy cane cheaply,” he said.
Kenya National Federation of Sugarcane Farmers secretary-general Ezra Okoth said cartels have also invaded Migori and Homa Bay. “They buy cane cheaply but later sell it to millers at high prices,” he said.
“The brokers are more active when schools open and parents need to pay fees for their children. They have ready cash, which they offer farmers in exchange for sugarcane,” he added.
The federation has proposed to millers to sign an agreement with farmers that only those who are registered be allowed to deliver their cane.
Sukari Industries general manager David Okoth said they had received reports that factory officials favour certain farmers. “Sugarcane from one area may mature at once. Henceforth, all the mature cane will be harvested and exhausted before we can move to a different area,” he said.
Mr Okoth said the move will allow farmers from one area to sell their cane at once and be able to replant at the same time for continuous production.
Deal with brokers
Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya recently pledged to deal with brokers in the sector.
“We cannot allow the situation where a farmer who has used his energy and resources to farm and develop the cash crop end up with nothing,” he said.
The CS said they would continue to implement President Uhuru Kenyatta’s directive and clean up the once lucrative sector
“The government will do everything in its capacity to restore the confidence of farmers who had abandoned the cash crop and restore the profitability of the sector,” he said.
He noted that the sugarcane, coffee and tea sector has the potential of transforming the economy.
“The lives of at least 80 per cent of Kenyans depend on the agricultural sector and we cannot afford to abandon it to a few individuals,” he said.
Reported by Benson Amadala, Victor Raballa and George Odiwuor