Time my village mates got serious and rid farms of sugarcane

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BY JACK OKINYI

“Murder your darlings” is a popular advice on writing skills that is oft attributed to William Cuthbert Faulkner, an American writer and Nobel Laureate. This expression does not in any way suggest that literally killing your kids or people you care about will make you a better writer.

Rather, it is a metaphor for just how you should act while revising your writing. The idea is to proceed objectively and without sentiment. Just like you would if you were to kill a loved one.

In other words, the writer must be alive to the dangers of him using personal favourite elements which may hold special meaning to him but can cause readers to roll their eyes in disgust.

The same advice is opportune for anyone involved in the torturous business of growing sugarcane and processing sugar in Kenya. It can also apply to the incurable romantics trying to save the “Pride of Africa” – Kenya Airways.

Both issues have attracted a lot of comment, mostly emotional and us-versus-them grandstanding that has become symptomatic of the state of political and economic discourse in the country.

Allow me to address the sugar industry issue because I am somewhat a stakeholder given that the South Nyanza (SONY) Sugar Factory in Awendo, Migori County is merely two kilometres from my rural home.

Also, my immediate family, relatives, village mates and virtually all residents of Awendo constituency depend on the sugar industry in one way or the other.

That the setting up of the SONY Sugar Factory in 1979 tremendously altered the economic status of my home area cannot be gainsaid. Everyone I know of has benefited from sugarcane farming, the first commercial farming venture in South Nyanza.

Before then, Awendo town was a trading centre with less than a dozen shops. My village was just a typical rural setting with hundreds grass thatched houses and few corrugated iron sheet roofs.

Some 30 years or so later, my village is truly middle class. Long metallic poles hoisting TV aerials are found in virtually home. Red tiled roofs and colourful iron sheets have replaced the grass as a roofing solution. Good schools like Sony Complex have also come up.

My village actually experienced rural electrification more than 30 years ago, thanks to it being close to SONY.

However, sugarcane farming needs euthanasia now. Why?

Sugarcane takes at least 18 months to mature but you will be lucky if your cane is harvested within 24 months. Then, wait at least another six months to be paid.

A well husbanded farm gets you some 40-45 tonnes of sugarcane per acre. The factory pays only Sh3,000 per tonne gross.

Then it deducts a large chunk for services like land tilling, providing seed cane, fertilizer, harvesting and transport (provided your weeded the farm yourself).

Another animal by the name Sony Outgrowers Company (SOC) also takes a percentage of your earnings for god knows why.

After 30 months of toiling, you take home something between Sh60,000 and Sh80,000 per acre.

That translates to about Sh2,000 per month. Yes that’s right.

Now show me a person in this country can feed and school his family on Sh2,000 a month and I will show you a magician.

Growing tea, coffee, potatoes, maize, beans, kunde, mrenda, tomatoes soya beans or even nappier grass will earn my villagers 10 times more if they abandoned this sugarcane madness.

That is why the time is ripe for my villagers and other suffering farmers to get serious with life and rid their farms of sugarcane.

The sugar industry benefits no one in Kenya. The farmers are suffering from low returns. The government wastes money year in year out bailing collapsing sugar factories and other Kenyans are forced consume ridiculously expensive sugar to sustain the loss making industry.

Let us stop this sentimental archaism. We can do better than engage is this sugar producing business.

(The author is a media consultant. He occasionally writes on topical issues)

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