Thursday, 20 August 2015

Sugar and Long-Maturing Politicians

One of the most pressing and high-ranked problems facing Kenya's sugar sector is the problem of low-yielding long-maturing crop varieties. Ironically, the most pressing and high-ranked impediment to economic growth and social progress in Kenya is also political immaturity. We have a pressing and high-ranked problem of narrow-minded low-yielding long-maturing politicians.

It doesn't matter which side of political divide you belong to, the milk-for-sugar deal between Kenya and Uganda is a serious scandal and an ignominious failure by the jubilee government and if you cannot acknowledge this fact for no other reason except that you blindly support the current government, then you are also part of the problem - not the solution.

The deal is not just a scandal, it is a heinous scandal but again not for the exact same reasons that most of the president's detractors an foaming at the mouth over - they too are part of the problem - not the solution. The scandal of the milk-for-sugar deal is in the fact that the billionaire president stands to gain immensely as he is associated with the leading dairy company that has effectively monopolized the dairy industry in Kenya.

The scandal of the milk-for-sugar deal is not that it is a sellout of our sugar sector, far from it. The scandal is in who directly benefits from the deal and what is heinous about it, is the fact that the deal ultimately enhances the president's fortune to the point of economic domination by the super wealthy president at the expense of poor sugarcane farmers. 92% of the sugarcane processed by Kenyan sugar factories is supplied by smallholder farmers and contracted out-growers.

Many of those opposed to the deal however, see it as a bad deal for Kenya and a case of abuse of office by the President. However, when you carefully analyze Kenya's sugar and dairy sectors' statistics, the milk-for-sugar deal with Uganda actually makes perfect sense, if you ignore the issue of the president benefiting immensely from the deal.

If we will recall, back in 2010, Kenya experienced a milk glut. Back then, Kenyan dairy farmers suffered huge losses as they produced a surplus of milk that all of Kenya's dairy processors combined, were unable to handle. The 2010 milk glut is clear evidence that Kenya's dairy sector has comparative advantage. The sugar sector however, is a different story. For decades now, Kenya has been a net sugar importer and as if that wasn't bad enough, our sugar sector’s productivity has been witnessing a steady decline since 2007.

Given these facts, the milk-for-sugar deal makes perfect sense. Our demand for sugar surpasses our current production capacity. The fact of the matter is, in order to meet or very own sugar demand, we require significant investments to expand our current production capacity and this is something that will take time - lots of it. 

In the mean time, Kenya has no choice but to import sugar in order to plug the gap in our sugar production to meet local demand. And what better place to plug that demand from than from a neighboring country that offers us a market for our surplus milk?

I have followed with horror and amazement, how Kenyans and the government have reacted to the milk-for-sugar deal with Uganda. There's no doubt that we Kenyans are an opinionated lot. And thanks to social media, we've perfected the art of shooting from the hip.

To be sure, it is good and even a right, to air an opinion about an issue, but it is even more useful to have an honest opinion. What is best though, is to have honest opinion that is informed. Regrettably, many, ...heck, most of the people who have commented extensively on the milk-for-sugar deal, neither understand what they are talking about nor the things which they so vehemently affirm. They are dubious pundits and politicians with an axe to grind with the jubilee government.

Observing how we Kenyans have debated the milk-for-sugar deal with Uganda, one thing is very clear - our economic literacy levels are wanting. The deal presented us with an economic dilemma that should have led to an intelligent national debate over the future of our sugar sector and wider economic reforms issues but regrettably what we have ended up with is a national diatribe. Kenya desperate needs fundamental economic reforms not political reforms but neither side of the political divide gets it and more so the Raila Odinga-led opposition.

Instead of taking the opportunity to chart the way forward for the sugar sector, the opposition has shamelessly taken advantage of the masses ignorance to gain political mileage by making them erroneously believe that our sugar sector has been gutted by the president. The opposition has gone even further to call for a boycott of dairy products by Brookside Dairy, the company associated with the president. Clearly, what we are confronted with is hatred and personal vendetta and not genuine political opposition that has national interests at heart.

To the best of my knowledge, until now, the opposition has not yet scrutinized the official deal document in order to conclusively determine whether or not, the milk-for-sugar deal with Uganda is a bad deal for Kenya and a selfish one for that matter. But listening to those opposed to the deal, you would be forgiven for thinking there is enough sugar locally to meet our own demand and that there is no demand gap that can only be filled though importation. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Nothing, in my opinion, is worse than peddling a dishonest opinion. Such opinions are intended to mislead the public and they are an abuse of the guiding principles by which we citizens rightfully enter the public square and engage with each other robustly but civilly. Dishonest and ignorant opinions like the ones being peddled by the opposition, are in essence, an abuse of public trust and for that matter dangerous.

As a matter of fact, the lies of the opposition on this issue are meant to hoodwink the unsuspecting masses and mask the failure of the opposition. If anyone has failed the sugar belt region, it is their very own representatives. The MPs and Senators from the sugar belt region have totally failed to champion the interests of the people they represent vigorously. For the longest time, all they have done is engage in political power games for personal benefit instead of prioritizing their constituents' needs.
Surely, after an election representatives must vigorously pursue the interest of the people who elected them but that isn't the case for most Kenyan MPs and senators and especially those from opposition strongholds.

The fact is, there actually exists in paper, very concrete plans to improve sugar production capacity to meet domestic sugar demand with surplus to export. If implemented, the plan would expand our sugar production capacity by 120% over and above the current production capacity.

But as we all know, our government, like all governments around the world, has limited resources and competing interests and priorities. It is not possible therefore to implement all plans at the same time. The key to ensuring implementation is effective representation. But prior to the woes of Mumias Sugar, have you ever heard the MPs and senators from the sugar belt pleading the cause of poor cane farmers? Me neither!

So, if anyone has failed cane farmers in our sugar belt, it is their selfish representatives. But this is not to say that the president is entirely blameless, far from it. The way the president went about the bilateral with Uganda exhibited a lack judgement besides being contrary to the basic tenets of good governance.

As a direct beneficiary of the milk-for-sugar deal with Uganda, the president should have been very transparent with the nation about the issue and laboured to build a strong case for the deal with Uganda beforehand. All he needed to do was awaken Kenyans to the fact that we as a nation do not produce enough sugar to meet domestic demand and that we normally plug the gap through importation. More importantly, he should have laid out his plan to turn around the sugar sector. He should have gone even further and taken action on sugar barons and those corrupt individuals responsible for the plundering of Mumias sugar or at least promised to take action.

Perhaps the president is lazy; perhaps he's incompetent; perhaps he prefers to bulldoze his way; perhaps he's a cunning man who prefers to scheme his way through issues; perhaps he knew he couldn't get the desired support for his deal; perhaps he doesn't know any better; perhaps he's a man who thinks he must have his way; I honestly don't Know why he chose to approach the issue the way he did. All that I know is that it was rather reckless of him and the huge political fallout could have been a lot less had he approached the issue correctly.

The milk-for-sugar deal with Uganda is without a doubt a debacle that is very characteristic of the often amateurish-looking jubilee government. In a desperate move to mitigate the political fallout, public uproar, and political backlash from the sugar belt, the government attempted to deny the milk-for-sugar deal with Uganda only to be contradicted by the Ugandan president. That was painfully embarrassing to see and not only did it not inspire confidence among us Kenyans, it made Kenyans and it's government look weak and unsure in the eyes of a neighboring president who has the guts to grab Migingo island from us. It's a shame honestly.

Assuming there is political will in the first place, the sugar problem of low-yielding long-maturing crop varieties can be overcome with paper planning and investment. The problem of political immaturity and low-yielding long-maturing narrow-minded politicians, is one that we must extricate ourselves from by being true to ourselves and our nation and shunning politics without principle.

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