Is sugar beet the solution to Kenya’s sugar woes?

For years now, Kenya has been grappling with a litany of crises that continue to afflict the sugar sector. They range from low production, delayed payments to farmers, high consumer prices and loss of revenue to government as sugar smugglers cash in on the situation.
The sugar deficit stands at about 200,000 tonnes annually. The solution to this recurring challenge remains elusive despite various interventions.
As the New Year begins, there are signs of a looming sugar shortage in coming months. The consumer price has shot up from Ksh100 per kilo last year to Ksh130 and is likely to rise further.
A report published by the Global Agriculture Information Network (GAIN) has forecast a decrease in Kenya’s sugar production in year 2016/2017. It attributes this trend to farmers in western Kenya abandoning sugarcane for other more lucrative crops.
The GAIN report states that cane production is limited by poor crop husbandry practices, low access to inputs, poor transport infrastructure and delayed payments to farmers. It points out that most of the state-owned sugar mills are operating below capacity and are burdened by obsolete milling technology and huge debts.
Locally produced sugar remains uncompetitive in the Comesa region, with the cost of production 60 percent higher than in Uganda and Tanzania, and 50 per cent higher than in Zambia.
The cost of production in the region is about 415 US dollars per tonne, while in Kenya it is more than 550 US dollars. Causes of the high Kenyan cost of production were best captured by a parliamentary committee report that had been tasked with identifying the woes bedevilling the sugar sector.
In its findings tabled in Parliament in 2015, high cost of production was attributed to poor agronomical practices in the sugar growing zones, the high cost of inputs and old machinery in the farms and at the factory.
Others are deteriorating soil fertility, use of low-yielding sugarcane varieties and reliance on rain-fed farming. The Departmental Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Co-operatives also citied small and uneconomic land sizes, unsustainable technical support to out-growers, poor roads, leading to high transport costs and low by-product utilisation.
Now, researchers and scientists in the sugar sector say there is a solution to the sugar challenges. It is sugar beet, a carrot-like plant whose root contains a high concentration of sucrose, is grown commercially worldwide for sugar production. It belongs to the altissima group of cultivars of the common beet.
This crop, which matures at between five and six months is grown in the United States, China, France, Germany, Egypt, Morocco, North and Central America, Chile, Iran, Japan, Pakistan and Syria. These countries have commercialised sugar beet production. Sugar beet is about a foot long, weighs between one and two kilogrammes and is about 18 per cent sucrose.
According to the American Sugarbeet Association, the crop is processed at 23 factories in several states. The factories are located near the fields, since the beet is a perishable vegetable.
Beet sugar represents about 54 per cent of domestically produced sugar in the US. There is no difference between beet and cane sugar in appearance and taste and unless informed, it is difficult for a consumer to distinguish the two.
Though sugar beet does well in temperate climates, research has shown that it can also grow in Kenya. Mr Wilfred Geita, a sugar engineer and former employee of Chemelil Sugar Company, says sugar beets have been grown in Nyandarua County in the past. For over 60 years, European settlers grew them for domestic and animal feed.
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