OBWOGO: Sugarcane and Maize Farming Has Enslaved Western Kenya for Decades. It’s Time to Switch to Cassava

Dr Subiri Obwogo • 12 May 2019

A few weeks ago, I wrote about sugarcane farming in western Kenya and Nyanza region and why I thought it’s no longer economically viable. I advised farmers to instead focus on orphan crops such as millet, sorghum, roots, tubers and bananas.

A reader challenged me to back up my claims. Okay, before I throw down the gauntlet, let me repeat what I said about growing sugarcane in Kenya and why it’s a total waste of time.

Let’s compare two parameters: how much sugarcane we harvest per hectare and what consumers pay for sugar.  


First, although sugarcane is cultivated in over 100 countries on all continents worldwide, according to 2014 data, 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.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, six countries accounted for more than half of the total production. These included South Africa (23%), Kenya (8%), Sudan (7%), Swaziland (7%), Mauritius (5%), and Zambia (5%).

Look, according to a 2018 Sugar Directorate report, Kenya produces about 600,000 tonnes of sugar a year, against an annual consumption of 870,000 tonnes. The sugar deficit is usually covered by stringently controlled imports from the Comesa trade bloc, with the country having a quota of 300,000 tonnes annually (see Figure 1 below).

Graph cassava

It’s not enough to just focus on boardroom mismanagement, or cartels that continue to dominate the 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). 


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).

In fact, five countries in Sub-Saharan Africa— Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Swaziland and South Africa— are consistently ranked among the lowest-cost sugar producers in the world, mainly due to the topography, soils, availability of irrigation, wet/hot summers and cool/sunny/dry winters, conditions that support high plant growth rates and sugar conversion (> 1 ton/hectare/month against a global average of 0.5 tons/hectare/month).

Shrinking plot sizes (1 ha on average) in Kenya also make it difficult to achieve economies of scale and increase productivity.

Graph 2 cassava

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.

cost sugar

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


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

Orphan crops are also categorised under cereals, legumes, root crops, and fruit crops and have a few things in common: get less attention and are under-researched, although new varieties of these crops have been developed recently.

Let’s look at cassava. Many still prefer maize to cassava flour and it’s even considered a poor man’s crop. But here’s my little secret— I grew up eating Ugali made from cassava mixed with millet and sorghum, and it tastes better and is more nutritious than refined maizemeal that I buy off the shelves. If you’ve never tasted fried cassava chips, you don’t know what you’re missing.


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

When properly processed, cassava pulp can be used in poultry feeds to provide energy (3,000Kcal/ kg compared to 3370 kcal/kg found in maize), easing pressure on maize and wheat. I must caution you that cassava has a lower protein content (less than 2.4 per cent against 7 per cent for maize) and when it’s used in making poultry feeds, other sources of animal and plant proteins and synthetic amino acids must be added.

In case you didn’t know, besides its use in making animal feeds, cassava can be processed industrially into starch, flour, cake, biscuits and ethanol. Although unexploited in Kenya, 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 (see Figure below).

As a matter of fact, FAO believes cassava revolution in Nigeria is still in its infancy.   

Graph 3 cassava

I’ve some more good news. 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.

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