The latest scandal in which Kenya allowed unregulated importation of thousands of tonnes of sugar duty-free, presents the unedifying spectacle of a country determined to strangle a sector that supports the livelihood of millions of its citizens.
Even worse are the frightening claims of contaminated and unprocessed sugar finding its way onto shop shelves, posing a serious health risk for Kenyans.
There is a lack of clarity on the facts, with different government officials giving different accounts, leaving consumers confused and uncertain about what they are really buying from supermarkets and shops.
As if the pain brought on by the flooding of the market with cheap imports were not enough, this scandal threatens to be the last straw for the country’s sugarcane farmers.
The sugar sector supports over six million people, but earnings from sugarcane farming have continued to dwindle over time. Although talks on how to revive the ailing sugar sector have been at the centre of discussions in boardrooms and conferences, the sector continues to go down the drain as crucial policy recommendations are left gathering dust on the shelves.
For instance, in 2015, the Kenyan parliament carried out an investigation into what was killing the sector.
Among its findings was inefficiency at the existing sugar millers, a high cost of production, illegal imports, increased dependence on rain-fed sugarcane farming and inadequate cane supply that has prompted some millers to poach cane belonging to rival firms.
The Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries came up with a number of recommendations including speeding up the process of selling off the ailing sugar millers to strategic investors to inject fresh capital and improve technology.
Although the Cabinet approved the sale of these firms (Muhoroni, Miwani, Nzoia, Chemelil and Sony) eight years ago in 2010, the Privatisation Commission has up to date not identified even a single buyer for any one of them, leave alone selling them.
The sale of these firms was also one of the conditions that Kenya committed to fulfil in order to be granted safeguard measures by the Comesa Council of Ministers against cheap imports from the regional bloc.
Other conditions included implementation of a new method of cane payment based on sucrose content, migration from rain-fed to irrigation farming and use of new cane varieties by farmers.
This year, Kenya is expected to submit a scorecard on the status of the reforms in its sugar industry to the Comesa Council of Ministers. The question remains: What has it done so far?
It is not clear if another two-year extension will be granted given that the Comesa member countries have already been kind enough to allow Kenya to protect its sugar industry beyond the statutory 10-year limit.
Kenya’s latest flouting of Comesa trading rules is likely to be considered by the member countries while deciding on whether to extend the safeguard measures.
A refusal will spell doom for Kenya's sugar sector, and the millions of Kenyans who depend on it.