KNA It is still 5am and Mr Wycliffe Wadeya is already toiling in his two acre farm, looking forward to register good sugarcane harvest this year. At this time, his wife, Mary Akello, is already awake, busy preparing him breakfast and sprucing up their mad walled house before she can join him in their shambaa.
At exactly 6am, Akello is already done with all their four primary school going children and releases them for school before she hits the road to work next to her husband of 20 years. The day replicates in that order from the onset of cane planting preparation to the crop’s delivery in the market.
The whole scenario indicates how a sugarcane farmer is busy throughout the growing and selling period. One would expect that the farmer gets maximum profit out of his or her hard work. But nay the story is one of the worst heart-rending accounts in Migori County where the crop is grown in plenty since the farmer is forced to wade in a sea of frustrations, exploitation and poverty year in year out.
Almost forty-two years now since the crop was first introduced in Migori County, all cane farmers, some serious ones, are still trapped in a cycle of poverty even as many would think that the lot bags in millions of shillings from the sale of the crop.
“Those who do not know have the notion that sugarcane farmers are rich. But look at their lifestyles; you will out rightly dismiss this thought. All of them are still living in ramshackle houses and many cannot offer a good education to their children,” said Mr Odiwuor Odera, a former chairman of the defunct Migori County Council.
From Kuria West to Migori, Uriri, Rongo and Awendo constituencies forming the Awendo sugar belt, the story is the same and the farmers’ woes have been squarely blamed on high exploitation by the sugar-milling factories and cartels involved in the importation of sugar into the country.
The firms, including the semi-autonomous South Nyanza Sugar (SONY) Company, Ndhiwa-based Private company, Sukari Industries and the Trans Mara-based factory, Mara Sugar Factory, have all been taking advantage of farmers’ ignorance to pay them low prices for their crops even as leaders make unheeded appeals for upward price reviews every year.
The factories always dangle good credit facilities and are even ready to advance farmers some payments as they wait to deduct from the next season’s crop deliveries. And unknown to farmers, the repayment interests are crafted in such a manner that they silently chop huge sums of money from farmers’ gross earnings, leaving them with peanuts as the net take home.
Local leaders and farmers have always petitioned the state to revitalise the sugar industry in the country through coming up with favourable policies which include lowering the cost of cane production and infusing good prices.
However, all these efforts have not had any impact in the area as farmers have continued to grow the crop against the weighing odds arguing that they have not gotten alternative crops worth diversifying to at the moment.
“We have tried cotton, embraced sun flower, reverted to tobacco and picked on bee keeping but all have challenges that we are not able to handle as poor farmers,” noted Mr Kepha Owino, a farmer in Oyani region, Uriri Constituency.
Mr Owino says that what they earn from their labour intensive sugarcane crop is so little that cannot make any body improve on his or her life owing to the ever-rising inflation in the country. But worst of all is the fact that some companies delay in paying farmers their dues, the notorious one being Sony, which is reported to still hold farmers’ payment amounting to over Sh500 million accrued from previous two years deliveries.
More than 500 farmers drawn from Kuria, Migori, Rongo, Awendo and Uriri are still stuck with hundreds of tons of mature sugarcane on their farms that cannot be harvested because of lack of capacity by the three factories to harvest and crash the cane.
Of all, the cash strapped government owned factory, Sony, which has the highest number of registered farmers, is unable to harvest, crash and pay farmers their rightful dues in time because it currently operates an obsolete plant.
“Why continue selling your crop to a company which has not finished paying for your produced delivered two years ago?” posed Councilor Odera when some farmers complained of delayed payments recently.
The former Central Kanyamkogo ward civic leader cautioned farmers against dealing with companies which do not serve them well even as he reminded them of the free market economy which offers one an opportunity to choose whom to do business with.
“You are free to sell your produce to any of the two private sugar milling plants operating in this region that pays your dues within one week for your benefit,” he advises.
But still, the choice of selling to the Asian-owned factories has got some serious consequences, according to the local farmers. They claim the two factories steal from them by using fake weighbridges that reduces the actual farmers’ cane tons by half.
Unlike tobacco crop that pose a lot of health hazards to farmers right from the nurseries to the kilns where the green leaves are treated before they are sold in the market for cigarette making, sugarcane is less dangerous to health of human being, except that it is prone to fire accidents.
The crop is also environmentally friendly as it attracts rain and gives the region it is grown a greenish lash of vegetation and clean air.
However, the low prices paid for it, have made farmers face unaddressed dilemma for long and most are now turning to the government to assist them find alternative crops that can see them brake even in the agri-business.
But on their part, milling factory officials maintain that what they pay farmers for their crops are modest prices which suit the current economy. “You don’t expect these companies to pay above the official recommended price. We pay as per the government’s stipulated price for us also to make profit, which fits,” said Sony Acting Managing Director John Ligawa during a recent interview with the press.
Mr Ligawa says that as much as some of our companies are to blame for the farmers’ problems, some of the farmers were also not keen on how they spent the money they earn from their crop.
“There are those of them who waste their earnings in drinking beer and women and forget that they have children to take to school and families to take care of,” he quipped, citing numerous cases where some homes have broken up over misuse of sugarcane money by irresponsible men.
Mrs Agnes Juma, a farmer from Rongo region, agrees that some of the menfolk involved in growing sugarcane have not spent their money wisely in developing their families and have ended up being beggars throughout their lives.
To Agnes, growing the crop is not all that bad. The little money earned from the crop can do something if wisely spent. “I am aware that some of our husbands have in the past fallen victims to young girls who prey on them when they earn from selling their produce,” she adds.