By G O
I have been constantly nudged to say something about the current debate going on, and on, and on, on what is ailing the sugar sector in Kenya. I see people bringing forward the issue of cost of production, some say it’s because of lack of government goodwill, some blame local political networks. Some, like me, just watch and soak all that in.
Let me tell you something. If there is any sugar company that would have been too powerful to go down, that company was to be found at Miwani.
Miwani Sugar Company (then Miwani Sugar Mills) was the first sugar company to be established in Kenya. That was in 1922 – twenty one years after the Indian coolies had arrived with the iron-snake in the battering market of Kisuma, from Mombasa.
The sugar story in Kenya will never be written without a substantial chunk of pages dedicated to the Indian farmers who took up cane growing as a profitable business. Miwani has a huge population of Asians. Perminder Singh (affectionately known as KAKE, and long-time head-coach of Kisumu Simba Hockey Club) has cane trailers stretching from here to Pluto. He also has huge tracks of land under cane in Miwani. People say if he decides to contest the Muhoroni seat, he would be one foot in Parliament just by announcing his candidature.
Chanan Singh, Birri Singh, and all other Singhs have provided Miwani with a vibrant economy stretching from engineering works, to panhandling jobs, to domestic chores.
Without those Asians, a huge chunk of Miwani would be dead by now. They have a chokehold in the sugar industry, when Miwani collapsed, they quickly organised themselves and built, from scratch, Kibos Sugar – which is just a limping distance from the site where the Miwani rubble stands.
And that is where the story begins.
Miwani had 10,000 ha of nuclear estate. No sugar company in this country, not even good old Mumias, can boast of such a luxury. What that means is that Miwani would survive on it’s cane alone, without relying on out-growers (private cane farmers), most of whom always hawk their produce to the highest bidder. Miwani was too good to fall. But it did.
Miwani had a vibrant agricultural extension department – full with extension Suzukis and Yamaha motorbikes. If there was one thing that was protected in Miwani more than anything else, it was almost-ripe cane farms. We had a disaster response system that would respond to cane fires at the touch of a button. The farthest cane farm, to the West, was at Kibos.
Whenever Miwani cane was in flames, anyone on the road would feel obliged to jump on the nearest TATA truck full with fire-frighting gear. I once boarded an emergency response van and it arrived at the furthest end before the 15th stem could catch real fire. I tell you this because we counted the stalks. Miwani operated like a stealth machine. It was too good to fall. But it did.
Anyone growing up in Miwani felt obliged to protect the company, and the surrounding economy. During our morning assembly sessions at The Miwani Estate Primary School, names would be read of pupils who were seen chewing fresh cane on their way home. It was abominable to be seen harvesting cane by hand – whether for one person, or the whole class. Anyone seen with fresh cane would be arrested and taken to the holding cell inside the company.
I know of friends whose parents almost lost their jobs because they broke this hallowed code. We had school prefects whose only mandate was to monitor the nearby farms watching out for those students diving into the farms to uproot few stalks for themselves. Miwani had a very elaborate system of minimising spillage and feeding all the cane to the mill. Miwani was too good to fall. But it did.
And I haven’t even touched on the company yet. Miwani was not just a sugar company, it was an industrial behemoth. Miwani had a whole range of products coming out of the plant. It had the normal sugar mill which produced brown sugar, then it had the refinery section for white sugar and icing sugar (the finest sugar they use to make cakes). And we’re not done yet. Miwani had the distillery section – my father’s Customs office was right at the foot of the distillery gate.
Miwani produced it’s own beer, wines and spirits – from the byproducts of cane (which, as you guess right, is molasses). Yes, Miwani also had a molasses plant. It also had bagasse, the fibre left over from the cane crushing cog used as manure in farms, or sent back to the boiler section to generate additional electricity. There are those in Miwani who earned their livelihood from digging up charcoal dumped from the wood used in the boiler section. Miwani was too good to go down. But it did.
By having more than one mill, Miwani would operate all year round without stopping for maintenance works. All they had to do is to service one mill as the others ran and vice-versa, at intervals. This ensured a steady supply of all those products I have listen up above. Everyone’s job was safe, all year round.
And I haven’t even mentioned that Miwani provided all staff with free housing, electricity, water and transport, to-and-from work. Even those going to Kisumu would hike a lift and return at no cost. That place was too good to go down. But. It. Did.
If Miwani went down, any company in this country can go down. And the powers-that-be will not lose sleep over it. Do not be under any illusion about that, whatsoever.
This post is just to bring to the conscience of anyone having illusions about any job, or lofty position, that guarantees hefty pay and makes you larger than life. If you don’t make hay while the sun shines, that day will come.
Believe me it will.