Friday, April 8, 2011

How sweet it is

Trucks full of sugar cane coming to be processed
The Mumias Sugar Company, like so many industries based in rural parts of the developing world, has its own little fiefdom.  Plopped in amid a broad swath of agrarian Kenya it stands amid a sea of sugar cane like a smoke-bellowing oil tanker.  Smooth arteries of well maintained roads emanate out in stark contrast to the typically pothole plagued roads in Western.  It’s a weird kind of oasis.

In a recent visit I got a tour of the factory, which was probably pretty compelling if you’re interested in how to turn fibrous stalks of cane into granular tea sweetener, but I could hear almost nothing between the buzzing factory din and my insulated hard hat.  Seems there’s quite a bit of industrial-scale crushing and boiling and at some point lye is involved.  After treacherous walks up rusty ladders through intimidatingly large and noisy compressing equipment we descended – through a thick odor of sourly sweet molasses - to the factory floor where the sugar is finally measured into sacs.  I don’t think I could tell you much about how this all happens, but it does seem an impressive feat, and this factory provides the better part of all of Kenya’s sugar.

The plant is set on a sprawling campus – home to 2000 factory employees – which contains pretty much anything a worker might need.  There are several schools, restaurants, shops, health facilities and even luxuries for the management class such as a swimming pool and sports complex.  But none of these inhabitants actually grow the sugar cane.   That is done by the thousands of surrounding farmers who sell their cane to Mumias.

Growing sugar cane appears, from the outside, to be a risky endeavor.  The pay-offs for an acre of cane is an eye-poppingly seductive sum of $600 – an amount that most farmers never see all at one time in their lives.  But the rub is that it takes a full 18 months to bring sugar cane to harvest, so there are obviously huge risks should anything go wrong. 

Still, cane farming is the last real cash crop around here and cane farmers do enough better than their subsistence maize growing neighbors to incent them to keep planting.  At least that’s the economic logic.  Growing must be more profitable than not growing cane otherwise people would stop doing it.  Simple enough, no?

And by most accounts Mumias is fair to its farmers, and even has cash transfer and loan programs and encourages each farmer to diversify the crops on their land. Though it’s hard for an outsider to really assess this.  

Still, the idea of the greedy parasitic corporation, growing rich off the backs of poor farmers, is a seductive narrative and it is repeated by many hard working farmers in the cane growing area. Farmers, who, despite their increase in income, may now feel poorer relative to the greater wealth of the Mumias workers.   So, farmers are not always thrilled with the arrangement. 

During the dry seasons when small fires are common, the fires near the factory are attributed, rightly or wrongly, to disgruntled farmer espionage.  There is still talk of people displaced decades ago by the purchase of the land on which Mumias sits exacting revenge.  It’s hard to tell myth from reality and to gauge the real level of injustice.

So, I’m not sure if people are truly better or worse off for Mumia’s presence, but I would guess better.  The other factory hubs in the area, which have been abandoned, have wrought clear economic damage to their areas.  People, who probably once complained, now pine for the paper mills’ return.  At least then there were jobs.  It’s just the sad reality of disproportionate power of industries surrounded by a sea of people with few choices.  

And even mighty Mumias’s future is not totally secured.  Protective trade barriers are slated to fall in the coming years, making its system of contracting with small local farmers uncompetitive with the economies of scale allowed by neighboring countries who harvest directly on massive plantations.  In anticipation, Mumias is diversifying into making power from organic refuse and even pioneering seemingly ridiculous niche markets like “vitamin fortified sugar.”  

In the end, I hope Mumias makes it. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Kim - We've never met, but I found your blog through Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. I really enjoy your writing. We live just across the border from you all, in South Karamoja, about 2-3 hours' drive north of Mbale. Did you go to Penn, by any chance? I also used to live in West Philly and think it is way more dangerous than East Africa! Anyway, just wanted to say hi & please feel free to drop by if you're in the neighborhood. All the best, Martha