The allegations about contaminated sugar and excessive importation of sugar beyond the required quota to meet the shortfall in local production are extremely emotive issues that have far-reaching implications on the economy of Western Kenya given the potential of resulting into closure of factories, loss of jobs, loss of business and injury to an already ailing sugar industry.
Kenya has declared war on contraband products infiltrating through its borders from other countries and I fully support the efforts being made to protect our economy and protect consumers from harmful products. I am glad that the National Government has put a red alert to all its agencies charged with protecting the citizens from harmful and toxic substances from getting to the ultimate consumers.
The CS for Interior should be commended for leading the onslaught on this war and I am happy he has promised a speedy resolution especially on sugar related products. However, in addition to the efforts by the Executive, I believe that as representatives of the people and guardians of the Counties we have an equal, if not greater, obligation to conduct objective and facts based investigations into this saga and recommend appropriate remedial measures to ensure public interest is safeguarded and necessary corrections made based on facts and truth.
I am particularly concerned by media reports and stories in social media that some of the sugar on sale to consumers in Kenya is contaminated with dangerous minerals like mercury, lead and copper. So far, I am not aware of a specific report by any of our competent scientific bodies and laboratories confirming such allegations of contamination.
Yet even in the absence of such scientific confirmation of contaminated sugar the public has been seized by fear and panic to the extent that some people have stopped or promised to stop consuming sugar. To the economy and people of Western Kenya, any widespread boycott of sugar consumption will have far-reaching economic implications because the sugar sector is the mainstay of our livelihood. Therefore, there is need for the Government to expeditiously confirm and verify the alarming and sensational reports on contaminated sugar and avoid the wrong impression that such sensational reports have already been confirmed and verified by competent personnel.
The public needs to know which consignment or imported batch of sugar is contaminated, who imported it, when it was tested and the exact results and identity of the body that conducted the test. In the event that such tests are ongoing, the Government also has an obligation to assure Kenyans that sugar cane processed by millers in Kenya is safe for consumption. In dealing with this important public matter, care should be taken to guard against the possibility of economic sabotage of Western Kenya Counties brought about by alarming statements on contamination of all sugar on sale in Kenya. Similarly, the brands of local millers should not be allowed to be eroded by such alarming statements. Public interest in the sugar sector, should be upheld to ensure that local sugar millers are enabled and facilitated to remain competitive in the market.
Kakamega County, is a major stakeholder in the sugar industry. The County is the home of three large sugar mills namely Mumias Sugar Company, Butali Sugar Mills and West Kenya Sugar Company Ltd. In terms of capacity Mumias is the largest sugar mill in Kenya whilst West Kenya is the second largest. As we all know, Mumias Sugar Company has been facing many challenges in recent years leading to its closure partly on account of mismanagement and cane shortages. A direct consequence of the closure of Mumias Sugar Company, the importance of Butali and West Kenya Sugar Companies from the standpoint of employment and economic mainstay of farmers in Kakamega County cannot be gainsaid. Butali Sugar Mill employs about 1000 people and has contracted about 40,000 farmers to supply it with cane on its part West Kenya employs 3500 workers and has contracted over 60,000 small scale farmers to supply it with cane.
These economic facts need to be underscored in the ongoing controversy over contraband sugar. I have heard sensational calls for withdrawal of milling licenses to companies such as West Kenya that have been adversely mentioned in the contraband sugar saga. While I concede that appropriate action should indeed be taken against all entities that upon full, comprehensive and objective investigations will be found culpable for either illegal importation of sugar or trading in contaminated or poisonous sugar. Unscrupulous sugar importation cartels will be the major beneficiaries of any hasty punitive action against sugar millers in Kenya. Therefore because of the multiple interests of stakeholders involved in the sugar sector, I wish to caution that withdrawal of licences or any adverse action against the millers should come after investigations and not before those investigations are conducted including by the appropriate Committee of the Senate.
I whole heartedly support the effort against this life threatening acts where alleged poisonous sugar is packed and placed on the shelves for public consumption. I am privy to information, which information I verily believe to be true, that steps being made towards cubing this menace includes but is not limited to closure of business associated with this vice. One such business is the West Kenya Sugar millers found within Kakamega County.
Investigations into allegations levelled against West Kenya Sugar Millers are still on-going and whereas I support the fight against these contraband products as I have stated earlier, I would like thorough investigations to be conducted before punitive measures are taken. The three Millers in my County contribute to tax collection to the county government of Kakamega directly and through the businesses and personnel working within and in businesses connected to the sugar industry.
When both Mumias Sugar Company and Nzoia Sugar Company began experiencing financial problems, a lot of farmers who were previously contracted to supply cane opted to supply their cane to West Kenya Sugar Company. In addition, a majority of the workforce that was previously working at both Nzoia Sugar Company and Mumias Sugar Company ended up as employees at West Kenya Millers. In a nutshell, this is the only large miller offering job opportunities and businesses to our people and the very thought of shutting it down would be catastrophic to our farmers and disastrous to the already struggling sugar industry in Kakamega County.
If it is true that sugar from Brazil is highly contaminated with Mercury, the noble steps to follow should not include victimising the importing company or least still closure of a company producing the sugar locally. We must therefore focus our energies in protecting products from outside the country while encouraging local producers to revamp the industry, whether they are public or privately owned.
Sen Malala is the Senator, Kakamega County