Ms Grace Sindikha, 61-year-old grandmother endures the hot sun as she harvests her crop.
The mother of 12 and a widow, is a subsistence sugarcane grower in Chevaiwa village in Butali, Kakamega County. She knows too well that her hard work will determine the future of her children and grandchildren.
And despite the tough challenges of sugarcane growing, she has to press on because she has no better alternative.
“I have been doing sugarcane farming for the last 20 years and I do it because my children and grandchildren have to get education,” she told the Smart Company.
Just like thousands of sugarcane growers in Western Kenya, Ms Sindikha lacks farm inputs and therefore does not expect to get a meaningful income from her harvest.
“I do not use fertiliser because I cannot afford it. I use the little money I get to pay school fees and nothing remains to buy fertiliser or other input,” she said.
If her crop is well tended she could get more yields than the 20 tonnes she is expecting from her three-quarter piece of land. But, that is a dream that may not be realised soon. For now, she is sure of getting Sh4,000 per tonne of the cane from the miller.
She said it is sometimes hard to get her miller’s go-ahead to harvest the cane. This is because the miller is overwhelmed by the number of farmers harvesting cane daily.
Failing to harvest the crop when it is mature presents another difficulty for the farmer: “If sugarcane is not harvested in time it becomes firewood, and it is of no use to us.”
Ms Sindikha believes her fortunes would be a lot better if the government stepped in and provide loans to enable her and other farmers to buy fertiliser and pesticides.
Her sentiments were echoed by Butali Sugarcane Farmers Association chairman Mr William Kopi, who said farmers lacked support from the government despite sugarcane farming being a key driver of economy in the country.
The sector has created 6 million jobs, directly or indirectly in 15 counties, namely Bomet, Bungoma, Busia, Homabay, Kakamega, Kericho, Kisii, Kisumu, Kwale, Migori, Nandi, Narok, Nyamira, Siaya and Vihiga.
Farmers initially used to benefit from the Sugarcane Development Fund Levy (SDF Levy) but this was scrapped off from the budget during the 2016/2017 financial year.
“We want SDF Levy reinstated because lack of it has affected our yields and income. We are not producing optimally and government should facilitate farmers to produce quality cane in good time,” said Mr Kopi.
The SDF was created in 1992 to help farmers by mainly providing research and extension services and help in cane development and maintenance as well development of industry infrastructure.
Most farmers interviewed say the government ought to be more responsive to their needs.
“It is unfortunate that farmers in Kakamega and Bungoma produce 25 to 40 tonnes per acre against the required 70 tonnes per acre, while their counterparts in Nandi and Uasin Gishu produce 50 to 60 tonnes, said Mr Daniel Kiyondi, the Finance Manager at Butali Sugar Mills.
Mr Kopi said their grievances to the government have fallen on deaf ears.
“When we complain, the government does not respond. We have been asking the government to restore the SDF Levy but no one is listening to us,” lamented Mr Kopi.
Another farmer, Mr Meshack Shatimba, also blames the woes in the sector on the lack of sufficient government support. He takes his sugarcane to the Butali Sugar Mills, a private-owned firm.
Butali is among the seven privately-owned sugar mills in the country and while they may be doing well, State-owned firms are in turmoil following years of mismanagement and neglect from successive governments.
This is according to a research conducted between September 2015 and February 2016 by the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi, and the findings released at the end of last year.
The research found out that lack of political good will over the years has immensely affected sugarcane farming and sugar production in the country.
“Lack of political good will has caused the sugar industry to be in a very precarious state. This is because the lower end of the value chain is struggling and farmers are no longer keen on growing the crop,” said Dr Paul Kamau, one of the researchers from IDS.
The research, funded by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR), also found that politically-connected cartels in the sugar industry, mismanagement, and lack of proper legislation were crippling the industry.
However, the head of Sugar Directorate Mr Solomon Odera said the government is doing its best in addressing the needs of cane growers.
“I am aware of the efforts the government has made such as coming up with laws that facilitate the industry. Sometimes the government goes out of its way to address the issues affecting the industry,” he said.
The report also established that sugar production is depressed not only because of low yields due to reduced morale, harsh climatic conditions and unhealthy competition but also because of inefficiencies from use of outdated technologies.
Due to privatisation, State-owned factories have started ignoring farmers, a situation that has affected cane production, explained Dr Kamau.
“The State-owned firms have neglected the farmers. They do not have input or support from the state to maintain roads leading to the farms.