OBWOGO: Join the Conversation— Sugarcane and Maize Farming has Failed Western Kenya. Is it Time to Grow Cassava?

Dr Subiri Obwogo • 14 May 2019
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Unless you’ve just landed from Mars, you know what I think about sugarcane farming in western Kenya. It’s not economically viable and there are better alternatives such as millet, sorghum, roots, tubers and bananas.

To understand my reasons, let’s compare how much sugarcane we harvest per hectare and what Kenyans pay for a kilo of sugar to other countries.  

WORLD’S LEADING SUGAR PRODUCERS

Brazil and India together were responsible for 57 per cent of the world’s sugar production. Africa contributed only 5 per cent to global sugarcane production.

Look, according to a 2018 Sugar Directorate report, Kenya has a deficit of about 300,000 tonnes annually (see Figure 1 below).

Graph 1

It’s not enough to just focus on boardroom mismanagement, or cartels that continue to dominate the sugar industry. Kenyan sugar fields produce an average of 60 tonnes of sugar cane per hectare which is about half of the productivity in Zambia (113 tonnes) or Malawi (105 tonnes— see Figure 2 below). 

RAIN-FED PRODUCTION

To grow sugarcane, Kenyan farmers still depend on rain and irrigation is non-existent. Another thing is that because of the colder climate, it takes on average 18 months until the first cane crop can be harvested (against 12 months in other African countries).

Graph2

By December last year, besides being unable to pay farmers for the cane delivered, these six sugar millers— Mumias, Nzoia, South Nyanza (Sony), Muhoroni and Chemelil— owed the taxman Sh17.1 billion.

In fact, the price of sugar in Europe and America, plus in high producing countries such as Malawi, Zambia, South Africa and Malaysia is about Sh 60 a kilo, compared to Sh120 in Kenya.

The high cost of sugar in Kenya is what drives the contraband trade in the commodity from Somalia.

ORPHAN CROPS AND POVERTY ERADICATION

Data shows that more than 300 million people living below the poverty line in Africa, Asia and the America depend on roots, tubers and bananas. Although neglected, orphan crops— cassava, sweet potatoes, African yam bean, millet and sorghum, offer a viable alternative for smallholder farmers.

FIFTH MAJOR CROP IN THE WORLD

Cassava is the fifth major crop in the world with ability to withstand drought and diseases. It’s the second most important food crop after maize in Coast and Western Kenya. It’s rich in energy and the leaves are rich in proteins.

It can be used to make animal feeds, or processed industrially into starch, flour, cake, biscuits and ethanol. Nigeria, the world’s leading producer of cassava, has fully embraced value addition and is reaping huge economic benefits. In 2018, it produced 52 million metric tonnes of cassava and the industry employs six million farmers.

As a matter of fact, the Food and Agriculture Organisation believes cassava revolution in Nigeria is still in its infancy.   

Another thing is that African researchers have been working to develop cassava cultivars resistant to cassava mosaic and cassava brown streak that are associated with 100 per cent yield loss.

Is it time to switch to cassava and other crops?