Let Us Be Objective On the Sugar Debate [opinion] (allAfrica.com)

Over the last two weeks, the country has been treated to an unending conversation over President Uhuru Kenyatta’s visit to Uganda. This was triggered by reports there was a deal to allow Uganda businessmen export their country’s surplus sugar to Kenya.

What had come to light is there was no such deal that was signed, but there were discussions where Uganda businessmen expressed their willingness to export sugar to Kenya. But as usual, we went ahead and politicised the issue ignoring the context and details of the discussions between Kenya and Uganda.

The political heat that was triggered by the issue is unfortunate at a time we are working to revive our own industries. It was wrong for the opposition to try to gain political mileage using the issue instead of focusing on the real issue.

Before even looking at the way forward, let us revisit some of the facts about sugar in the country including its importation. As CP Scott said: “Opinion is free, but facts are sacred.” – and this should be our ever unending principle when dealing with matters of national importance.

To start with, we have had an ailing sugar industry that has failed to meet the national demand for sugar leading to the need to import the product for more than a decade now. As we recall, it is only last month that President Uhuru Kenyatta issued Mumias Sugar Company with a Sh1 billion cheque to help revive its business operations.

Many other industries in the Kenyan sugar belt are highly indebted and are almost grounding to a halt. They have failed to operate to their capacity and as a result low production has led the country to a deficit of sugar.

According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Authority, last year, the country produced 592,668 metric tonnes of sugar. With a consumption of 860,084 metric tonnes, the sugar imports were at 192,121 metric tonnes in 2014. In 2012 and 2013, we had to import 238,589 metric tonnes and 238,046 metric tonnes of sugar respectively in order to meet our deficit.

In line with regional trade, Kenya is allowed to import up to 300,000 metric tonnes of sugar annually under the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (Comesa). We are aware that Kenya and Uganda are members of Comesa and have also signed the East Africa Community common market protocol.

The EAC common market protocol allows for the free movement of goods, services, labour and capital among the member states. This means industries from the EAC can freely export their surplus to their neighbours as long as this is done in line with the protocol and trade agreements.

Since 2012, Kenya has tried to safeguard its sugar industry by restricting sugar imports to avoid the dumping of cheap sugar exports from its neighbours. This is expected from any government that seeks to see its economy grow and have its farmers benefit from local industries.

As a result, the Kenya Sugar Board came up with a system where exporters have to acquire permits allowing them to export sugar to Kenya. This has thus created greater restrictions for traders in the region including Uganda.

When President Uhuru Kenyatta and his delegation were in Uganda, the traders requested this ban on sugar imports from the region be lifted. It was then agreed that Kenya, in the spirit of regional integration and growth, would ease the permit process to allow Uganda sugar imports.

This was the basis of the first communication by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which announced details of the discussions. At a business forum held in Kampala, Foreign Affairs CS Amina Mohammed said there was a delay in the issuing of permits due to the reorganisation of agricultural bodies to form the AFFA.

She made the comment after Uganda government officials and businessmen complained that Kenya was blocking them from exporting sugar to Kenya. Therefore, the issue at hand is that Kenya imports sugar every year from various countries including Uganda.

There have been claims by the opposition that Uganda does not have surplus sugar to export. This has been discounted by data from the Uganda Sugar Manufacturers Association, which shows the Kenyan neighbour has had surplus production in the last two years.

According to the Uganda Sugar Manufacturers Association, in 2014, the country produced 438,360 metric tonnes of sugar against a consumption of about 403,000 metric tonnes. The manufacturers estimate the 2015 sugar production will stand at 508,500 metric tonnes. This means Uganda will have about 100,000 metric tonnes of surplus sugar in 2015, some of which will help deal with the deficit we experience in Kenya.

Moving forward, we must quit playing politics with our agricultural industries and our farmers because this does not help the situation. What we must seek to do is see how we can help our industries recover so that we can get higher benefits for our farmers and the country.

We must revive all industries including sugar, meat, cotton, tea and so on, and see how we can push the country to be a big exporter and quit depending on imports. Let us seek solutions to our challenges instead of engaging in politics on every issue.

The writer is a Political and Communications consultant.