Though sugarcane has been grown in Kenya for more than a century, the country’s sugar industry has been riddled with challenges from the political to the practical. On the political front, the industry is in an absolute tangle as the government attempts to withdraw itself from owning nearly half a dozen mills, yet doesn’t seem to have the political will to actually go through with privatisation.
On the practical side, sugarcane production has become a shrinking proposition not just because of the government-owned mills’ inability to stay up to date with modern technology but also because of its failure to expand enough to account for all of the cane grown by farmers. Without a market, farmers have been switching to other crops. When they can, that is, because clearing their land of standing cane and losing that investment is a difficult conundrum to balance out if there’s even the slightest chance of selling that cane to a mill or jaggery.
What is becoming more of an issue, however, is water. In the new jargon of “sustainability and development”, it’s the food and water nexus (energy is often included in this “nexus” as well). The country has been suffering from severe droughts on and off for the past handful of years and it is recognised that it is one of the African countries to be hardest hit by the negative effects of climate change. Arid areas are expanding at an alarming rate, impacting communities, food supply, livestock and crops alike. Without enough water, sugarcane fails to mature with enough sugar content and the whole plan to rehabilitate the sugar industry goes straight out the window.
In countries where water supply is a challenge to agriculture, like in Pakistan and some parts of South Africa, sugarbeet has been investigated as a potential option for complementing or even replacing sugarcane production. With a shorter growing period of five or six months, compared to 14 months or more in Kenya for sugarcane, and only about a third of the water requirement of sugarcane, its attractiveness is obvious.
On the agricultural side, beet may seem very attractive but on the processing side, it requires significant capital investment in order to set up a factory. Though discussions on beet have been going on for some time, with Mumias trialling European beet varieties in 2001, 2003 and 2005 and later Syngenta’s trialling success with its tropical sugarbeet varieties in nearby Sudan, it appears that the gap in capital investment might finally be closing.
In February, the Western Biofuel Company (WEBCO) announced that it would develop a US$150 million sugarbeet ethanol factory in the west of the country with financial backing from the UK, China and Qatar. Undoubtedly local sugarcane millers are concerned that demand for a short-season crop would undermine existing sugarcane supplies as farmers switched crops for a quicker return.
WEBCO says that in its trials of tropical sugarbeet, it was able to produce 70-100 tonnes of sugar per hectare, whereas the Mumias trials using Swedish beet varieties were only able to get 40-47 tonnes per hectare. That could mean that tropical beet varieties really are significantly different than their temperate brethren or it could mean that one or the other’s results are a bit exaggerated. That’s not uncommon in Kenya either.
Now it appears that the sugarbeet factory planned for Nyandarua county is at last ready to move forward. That project was first registered in 2007, but local officials this week said that the government was seeking the cooperation of the Chinese government to help source equipment for the sugarbeet factory in an effort to get the project moving forward again.
Rather than ethanol production like WEBCO, the Nyandarua project is intended to produce sugar for the local market and then export surpluses to the East African Community with an initial production capacity of 1,000 tonnes per day, later boosting to 10,000 tonnes per day.
As demonstrated by the decades-long attempt to privatise government mills and that Nyandarua is only now looking at equipment five years after announcing the project does not bode well for a speedy implementation of the WEBCO project, but if financing is already in place as advertised, perhaps commercial beet production and processing could come online in Kenya quicker than we think.
With Kenya’s water situation deteriorating rapidly, getting in a quick solution for sugar, energy, fuel and animal feed would be a boon for the country indeed.