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The bitter story of the downfall of Mumias Sugar company

A spoonful of sugar, but for who? (Image: Carol Wallis on Flickr)
Have you heard the bitter story of Mumias Sugar?

Regarded by many as Kenya's most successful sugar miller, Mumias Sugar Company was a disaster waiting to happen.

Many pointed out how Mumias Sugar Company was a fortress in the wreck that is Kenya's sugar industry, only unaware that it was just a matter of time. As the old wise men said, "Ukiona cha mwenzako cha nyolewa, tia chako maji".

The proverb means that if you see your neighbour's head getting shaved, your head will soon be undergoing the same - you'd therefore better wet your head for a smoother shave, otherwise you will be forced to undergo a painful, dry, shave.

But what ails Kenya's sugar industry?

The Kenya sugar industry is under legal siege. The typical Kenyan issue of coming up with laws to tackle a problem is evident here.

Many of Kenya's sugar factories are owned by the government, and have slowly declined under mismanagement and corruption. The appointing of political cronies and tribal management to such firms means that unqualified people are appointed to lead these firms. The same management can hardly resist dipping their fingers in the sugar jar, and end up slowly eating the factories to a level where they can't operate, or if they can operate, do so at very high costs.

Elsewhere, sugar industries in other places are owned by business people who take good care of them, only eating profits. To increase the profits, sugar factories in other countries are run at lower costs, and at a higher efficiency, that maximises on costs while also trying to keep their product as affordable as possible in a bid to fight off competitors.

This has eventually resulted in a situation where you could somehow convince a Portuguese speaking Brazilian to sell you sugar, in your mother-tongue-afflicted Engrish.

You then board the sugar on a ship, where it will spent 6 months in the high seas, and another month or so in the inefficient port of Mombasa. It then gets loaded onto a truck to Nairobi, in what is a proportionally costly.

On getting to Nairobi, Kenyans will still find your sugar cheaper than sugar from Kenya's sugar belt, just a few hours away from Nairobi.

When the bitter truth of this dawned on us, our hapless farmers cried foul, and our politicians reactively ground into gear. With everyone keen on keeping on eating, a familiar "win-win" solution was found. We would come up with a law banning or limiting the importation of sugar, to protect "our farmers" and tax payer factories.

Genius, right?

Wrong. In Kenya, laws are for the poor, the rich consider laws as merely a suggestion that they may choose to uphold or ignore.

As the inefficient cost of Kenya's sugar production went up and up, the difference in price of Kenyan produced sugar and that of imported sugar grew.  The chaps who drive dark tinted big cars figured that if they could somehow import sugar into the Kenyan market, and sold it at the Kenyan price, you could double your money faster than a prophet could by promising to act as a godly middleman.

Meanwhile, Alshabaab, all the way in Somalia, figured out that if they could import sugar and sell it in Kenya, they could easily fund their war on Kenyans. In Kenya, they found a ready market in businessmen who find sugar a fast means to riches.

The government agencies meant to uphold the ban on imported sugar were nowhere to be seen. They had taken shelter from the money that was raining on them as bribes. After all, if someone slaps you on the cheek, with a bribe, you offer them the other cheek....

It did not stop here. Those appointed to run our sugar factories found that they if they imported sugar and repackaged it as local sugar, they would need to stay up all night just counting all the money that came in.

Thus, a law to protect Kenya's sugar industry has only resulted to helpless Kenyans being forced to pay double what they should for sugar. The poor farmers who were to be protected by the laws are now owed billions by sugar factories. Kenyans are still being asked to fork billions to bail out these sugar factories, in readiness for their next, inevitable cycle of collapse.

Furthermore, Kenya, being part of  COMESA, is bound to allow neighbouring countries to sell their sugar in Kenya. However, Kenya has perpetually requested for the extension of the deadline, year in, year out, under the guise of putting our sugar industry in order.

A man finds himself in a dessert, with neither water, nor food, stranded with all his belongings. Luckily, the man is found by a helicopter, which could rescue him, but the man has to leave his belongings in the desert. The man argues that he can't leave his belongings since he will be left poor.  The helicopter leaves, and the man gets lost further in the desert. Another helicopter comes, and another, but the man is still not ready to abandon his belongings. This man is Kenya.

It's time Kenya's government left the sugar industry to private sugar companies, like West Sugar Company (Kabras), and allows other companies or individuals to take over the failing sugar factories. Laws protecting the sugar industry should also be done away with, alongside those that determine how and who can run a sugar factory.

The laws just but a flimsy hatch trying to stop a barraging flood of cheap sugar from everywhere else other than Kenya. The only beneficiaries are the crafty and powerful business men, who are eating on our behalf.

As if we have learned no lessons, the same mess is set to repeat itself in the maize industry, where the government is setting up flour milling industries to "protect consumers". Importation of maize is also banned to "protect farmers", and government owned National Cereals and Produce Board who is a major buyer of maize, is now to become a miller. De ja vu, you have heard something similar before, haven't you?

As is said, history is bound to repeat itself for those who fail to learn from it.

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