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Why sugar beet should be sweet news to the country

Milliam Murigi @millymur1

When Junghae Wainaina, Chairman Juanco Group of Companies visited Australia and France — some of the top sugar producing countries in the world — his aim was to learn new techniques and crops that these countries use to produce their sugar so that he can transfer the knowledge to Kenya.

He didn’t even have any idea of setting up a sugar-processing factory, but as a businessman, he was curious and wanted to learn. During his visits, he came across sugar beet, a plant whose root contains a high concentration of sucrose and which is grown commercially for sugar production. The plant’s sugar content ranges from 10 per cent to 21 per cent.

Wainaina didn’t have intentions to partner with sugar-producing companies considering that by then he was in the potato industry. The investor was only eager to know how sugar beet is grown and processed to make sugar.

After the visits, he was bothered because Kenya experiences on average an annual deficit of 200,000 to 300,000 tonnes of production compared to demand every year. In 2015, Kenya’s sugar deficit was 253,559 tonnes after consumption had increased to 889,233 tonnes against a production of 635,674 tonnes.

In 2014, the deficit was 267,416 tonnes, with the country consuming 860,084 tonnes against a production of 592,668 tonnes. To cover this deficit, the government imports sugar from either the Comesa region or Brazil under a protection window, yet Kenya has the best climate for sugar-producing crops.

This is when an idea of starting a sugar processing company using sugar beet as the raw material hit him. Since the crop was new to Kenya, he had to conduct research and using trial and error methods, he sought to come up with the best sugar beet variety favoured by the local climatic conditions and has high yields.

“We started with five varieties and after 12 years of continuous research, we have managed to get two varieties which have high per cent of sugar content and we are ready to pilot them in Nyandarua county,” he says.

And what are the advantages of sugar beet when compared to sugarcane production? Wainaina says sugar beet matures faster, has higher sugar content and that the cost of production is cheaper.

The crop has a high yield level and is used 100 per cent. Apart from making sugar, the crop is versatile and can also be used to make ethanol; molasses and the pulp can be used as animal feed.

Wainaina says sugar beet grown locally has shown 12 to 17 per cent sugar content while sugarcane has less than 11 per cent. This is a clear indication that less quantity will be required to make sugar compared to sugarcane, thus lowering the cost of production and cost of the final product.

Furthermore, one hectare of sugar beet produces 75 to 120 tonnes per season whereas the same size of sugarcane plantation produces 40 tonnes. “We have chosen Nyandarua because of the temperate climate and we will be setting up our factory in phases. We have set aside Sh300 million to start the factory. We will start with a single unit then expand with time.

Sugar beet grows best when temperatures are between 10 and 25 degrees centigrade,” he adds. Wainanaia reveals that the company has acquired 13 acres of land in Nyandarua (Kinangop) where they will be setting up a processing plant and start production either late next year or early 2019.

The slow start is because they have to train farmers willing to venture into this venture and ensure that they can sustain the product once they start production. For the first phase, this project requires not less than 2,000 small-scale farmers depending on the size of the land or about 5,000 acres to be put under sugar beet plantation.

Wainana’s factory will initially be producing about five tonnes of sugar per day. Sugar beet takes four to five months to be ready for harvest and this means that every year, they will be having two seasons.

“This is the time to think outside the box. Even though this will not be 100 per cent solution to the current sugar deficit, it will reduce the national deficit, reduce imports and save us foreign exchange,” he says.

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