Excitement grips Narok as Mara Sugar FC gains promotion to KPL

Samwel Otieno (right) of Mara Sugar FC tries to dribble past Onyango Frederick of Shabana FC during the National Super League Match at Awendo Green Stadium in Migori on November 7, 2021.

Photo credit: Photo/Ondari Ogega

What you need to know:

  • The team's story is a tale of unwavering determination to succeed
  • Mara Sugar FC’s journey to the top league has not been an easy one.

Palpable excitement has gripped Narok County following Mara Sugar FC's promotion to the Football Federation of Kenya Premier League.

And it is easy to see why it is such a big deal.

Mara Sugar FC’s story is a tale of unwavering determination to succeed in the face of challenges, some of which appeared unsurmountable at first.

Mara Sugar FC, a team that founded in 2012 as a motley collection of part-time factory workers, sugarcane loaders and talented youth who split their time between tilling the land to grow sugarcane and playing football, has qualified for promotion to Kenya’s top football league where it will fight for a chance to play in Africa’s premier football club competition, the Caf Champions League.

Fourteen years since it was founded by Transmara Sugar Company in Kilgoris, Transmara West Sub-County, the team is now semi-professional and draws massive support from the local community.

With Shankoe Primary School field as its training ground, the club enrolled in the Nyanza South Provincial league in 2013 and finished third overall under coach Tom Kadwe and his assistant Wilson Okemo. 

In 2015, the club entered the South Rift Provincial League, and finished second, earning promotion to FKF Division One League where it played till 2018.

In 2021, the club won FKF Division One League and earned promotion to the second-tier National Super League (NSL).

To a casual observer, Mara Sugar FC is just another team gaining promotion from the second-tier National Super League, to the top Kenyan league, but the team’s loyal fans see it differently.

The team’s promotion from the National Super League to FKF-PL is an opportunity for ‘real representation’ of the Maa community in the top league.

Whenever the team holds its training sessions at Enoosaen grounds in Kilgoris, huge crowds turn up to attend.

Pipe-smoking Maasai men clad in shukas show up with traditional Maasai stools to watch the team in training.

It is not uncommon for elders to bestow ‘blessings’ upon the team ahead of matches and perhaps this explains why the team has a good conversion rate of goals.

Mara Sugar have found the back of the net 75 times in 36 matches, with a healthy goal difference of 45. The team has won 25 matches, drawing six and losing five.

Located 317 kilometres away from Nairobi, and 177km from Narok town which is the county headquarters, Kilgoris also holds special place in Kenyan sports parlance.

It is home to world 800m record holder, David Rudisha. David is son of Daniel Rudisha, a member of Kenya men’s 4x400m quartet which won silver at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico.

The other members of the quarter were Naftali Bon, Munyoro Nyamau, and Charles Asati.

So deep is the sense of attachment to, and support for the team by the locals that its training sessions could easily pass for matchdays.

The locals are thrilled that for the first time, a team from the Maasai community will play in the FKF-PL.

“Hii ni yetu (this one is ours). The Gusii region has Shabana FC, coast region has Bandari FC, Luoland has Gor Mahia, and western region has AFC Leopards. For the first time, we have a team we can call our own in the (FKF-PL) league,” Kilgoris-based primary school teacher who only identifies himself as Ole Lenku, offers. He is an avid supporter of Mara Sugar FC and attends its matches.

Dominic Olonana from Kilgoris Central Ward is over the moon following the team’s promotion to the top league.

“Mara Sugar has indeed done us proud. As people from the Maasai community, we feel happy that for the first time ever, we will have a team from Narok taking part in the Premier league,” Olonana said.

He has urged the government to build a good stadium in Kilgoris for the team to use for their home matches.

“The county or even the national government should help us have a good stadium around. If this is done, it will save the team from having to travel all the way to Awendo to play its home matches,” Olonana added.
  
The journey to Kenya’s top football league has not been easy. 

For lack of a stadium in Kilgoris, Mara Sugar FC ‘hosts’ its National matches at Awendo Green Stadium in Migori County which makes for a shorter travel distance than the far-flung William Ole Ntimana Stadium located 177km in Narok. 

Midseason, Team Manager Thomas Oduor who has been at the heart of operations at the club died.

Around the same time, the club’s top striker, Philemon Nyakwakwa, left in the mid-season transfer window to join FKF-PL side KCB.

At the time, Nyakwakwa was the top scorer in the second-tier league with 17 goals. In his absence, Michael Isabwa, Brian Ochieng and Mohamed Baraza stepped up to the challenge.

Early in the season, Mara Sugar’s hope of gaining promotion suffered a dent when coach Francis Xavier left the club to join FKF-PL team Sofapaka FC as an assistant coach, forcing club official’s back to the drawing board.

After a rigorous search, the club appointed the Thika United’s former defender Vincent Nyaberi to take charge. But Nyaberi, too, left Mara unceremoniously after taking charge of a couple of matches and joined fellow National Super League team Mully Childrens Family.

Benedict Wanjala was later appointed to take up the position as head coach.

On June 8, 2024, the team put one foot in the 2024-2025 FKF-PL after thrashing Silibwet FC from the nearby Bomet County 4-0 in a one-sided National Super League match at Awendo Green Stadium, but coach Benedict Wanjala knows hard work lies ahead. 

“It is not yet time for celebration because we have not achieved our target, which is to win the title. That is what we had agreed on with my players. We need to surpass the 80-point mark, and we are not yet there,” Wanjala told Nation Sport after the match.
 
The team’s technical director, former Kenyan international Boniface Ambani, reckons that the journey to the top league has not been an easy one.

“We have had a bumpy ride to where we are now. We have brought this team from the Division Two league,” the former Harambee Stars striker said.

“Honestly speaking, at first when I was told of this team that is based in Transmara, I wondered ‘in which part of the country is Transmara?’. However, I was given directions and I went all the way to meet the officials, and we agreed on how to put things right. Years later, we can see the results,” Ambani said.

“We dedicate our promotion to our late team manager Tom Oduor. Tom really wanted this team to play in the Premier League, and his wishes have been granted even if he is not here with us. His legacy will live forever at Mara Sugar. This win is for him,” Ambani says.

Mara Sugar still have unfinished business in the season, that of winning the NSL. The team, which leads NSL standings on 81 points, faces second-placed Mathare United (79) in the penultimate match of the season this Saturday.