By Kioko Nyamasyo

If you visit South Kamagambo Sub County you will see one of the most beautiful sceneries in the country. The area is covered with sprawling green fields of sugarcane with some small patches of maize farms. In one of the feeder roads, we meet two young men trying to pull a stuck oxen cart.

“In the past we could never get stuck, the roads were always maintained. They were maintained by sugar factories who would come with their lorries daily to carry sugarcane,” Robert Ochwang’i, one of the men, explains.

The shutting down of some of the sugar factories did not only affect the roads but also livelihoods of the residents of South Kamagambo. The area solely depended on sugarcane farming and closure of the factories took away their only source of income.

“They did not close shop completely, some factories still buy sugarcane but residents rarely sell to them because most of the times they never pay,” Ochwang’i explains.

He tells us that they are taking their sugarcane to a neighbour who makes jaggery. This is a mixture of sugar and molasses gotten by boiling and cooling sugarcane sap.

We help the two young men push the visibly tired oxen towards a home nearby. Here, we find other two young men crushing sugarcane stalks using a diesel-powered machine and taking the juice two four boiling pots.

“I am a farmer and this is what I have been doing for many years now. My husband passed on long time ago and I had to do something to feed my family. Through sugarcane farming I have been able to educate my children and grandchildren, Currently, I have two granddaughters at university,” Jennifer Ragira, the owner of the machine narrates.

She says that she makes good money than most people in formal employment, noting that she has ten acres which she uses to grow sugarcane for jaggery making.

“When the surrounding sugar factories stopped paying us, we almost perished because of poverty,” she laments. “Luckily, some residents suggested we start making of jiggery at a large scale level and that became our saving grace.”

She explains that the sugar industry did not fall at once. “They used to pay us good money, our work would be to plant the sugarcane only and during harvest time the factory would send workers to cut the cane and carry using tractors,” Ragira stated.

“It reached a point where we would wait for our money for close to two years, we could not even provide for our children during those time.”

She continues: “One day, we demonstrated against one of the factories and the director told us there was no money but if we wanted, he could give us packaged sugar to go and sell in our villages.”

Ragira says it is at that time she decided that she will never sell her sugarcane to the factory again. Sometimes, she adds, it is inevitable to sell to the factories especially during school opening when they are pressed for school fees.

“There are some privately owned factories that are coming up, they pay a bit more promptly but their prices are low sometimes you end up making losses,” she notes.

Ragira opted for jaggery making due to the steady income, she gains from it. “Every acre I make a profit of Sh 100,000 (approximately $1000),” she said, adding

“I do not plant all the ten acres at once, this enables me to have ready sugarcane all year round.”

Jaggery making employs a lot of people in the village too. There are people who cultivate the farms, those who harvest, and those who manufacture the jaggery as well as packaging.

‘I make around Sh 10,000 everyday (about $100) for 6 days in a week,’ Ragira says. This is a lot of money in a country where many citizens make less than a dollar in a day. It seems like she has hit a jackpot and would never dream of working with sugar industries again.

‘I would love for the industries to roar again and provide good prices to farmers. When you are selling to a factory you make more money and most importantly you do not shoulder all the risks,’ she notes.

Patrick Kereu, is one of the young men boiling the sugarcane juice. He is grateful for the job. “I used to do menial jobs before venturing into jaggery business, here I can make $8 per day which is more than I have ever made elsewhere,” he says.

“Before I came here, I used to work at construction sites where I would earn $3 in a day working for 12 hours whereas here, I can even make $10 in a day working for only 10 hours.”

Sugarcane juice being boiled to evaporate excess water

Once they boil the sugarcane sap to evaporate excess water, it is left to cool. “The difference between packaged sugar and this one is that we let it to dry before purifying, that is why it is brown in colour because it still has the molasses,” Kereu explains.

They do not let it cool completely in the large container but rather pour it in small cups. “In a day we make around 400 cups of jaggery which we sell at Sh 50 each ($5), after deducting costs my profit per day is around 200 cups,” ragira explains.

There are several markets for the processed jaggery. ‘People come all the way from Mombasa and Nairobi to buy, it is used in making sweets, animal feeds and alcohols,’ she says. “Most locals also buy jaggery to make illicit brew as it is better and less expensive than packaged sugar.”

Michael Omolo, is another farmer who owns  a sugarcane crushing machine. ‘The main sugar factory here is failing and selling them your cane is a hassle,” he says. “Even for them to come and cut your sugarcane you must pay them some bribe.”

Omolo notes that even paying the bribe does not assure you of good returns as sometimes they will cut the sugarcane and leave it lying on the field for two weeks, making it lose its tonnage. This results loses since they payment is per tonne.

Michael Omolo poses beside his sugarcane crushing machine

Omolo started planting sugarcane in 2010. At that time, he was selling sugarcane to the local factories.

“The government owned factory is going through challenges but if it started full operations again, I would consider selling some of my sugarcane to them,” he says. “They do not require bribes like the private factories and they also have enough trucks and cane cutters.”

Omolo says that jaggery making has been a saving grace for him and he would never stop making it. The jaggery compliments the sugar industry, he says noting that jaggery gives him cash on a daily basis which he depends on the factories pay a lumpsum amount which he uses to undertake major projects.

Omolo makes around 250 jaggery tins in a day and after expenses he makes around $50 in a day.

While jaggery has saved a lot of residents from poverty it comes with its challenges. Ochwang’i says, ‘Not every farmer in the area can afford the cane crushing machine, we have to sell our sugarcane to neighbours and sometimes they buy at small price.”

Ragira says that she bought her machine at a cost of Sh 200,000 (about $2000).

There is a lot of heat involved when boiling the sugar cane juice, “I drink 15 litres of water while working, I have also been advised to drink a lot of milk but it is not affordable,”Kereu explains.

Operating the cane crushing machine is also risky, Jennifer shows us her severed finger. ‘I almost lost my hand when operating the machine, my neighbour got stuck in the crush and she had her leg amputated,’ she says.

Packaged jaggery cooling off

Omolo decries that one cannot always rely on the jaggery prices. The commodity is not regulated like most other goods.

He says that most of the times they depend on the mercy of brokers who buy the jaggery to go and sell outside the county. “The prices are especially low during rainy season and you can sell one tin for as little as Sh 30. With that price, you will struggle to break even,” Omolo adds.

While Omolo and Ragira seem to be making a lot of money from jaggery making, it does not really paint a true picture of Kamagambo sugarcane farmers. The two are among farmers who are lucky enough to own huge pieces of land and sugarcane crushing machines.

Small scale farmers have to sell their sugarcane to those who own the expensive machines. Some of the farmers who own the machines take 20 jaggery tins out of every 100 tins made. This greatly reduces the profits the other farmers make from sugarcane farming.

Benard Moreka , one of those small scale farmers said, “We are trying to unite as small scale farmers and raise Sh 250,000 (approximately $2500) to buy our own machine, this will almost double our profits.”

Residents of South Kamagambo feel that county and national governments are not doing enough to support them. They feel that they could get more buyers if the two tiers of government would help market their product.