A new private sugar firm in Kenya is pioneering irrigation farming and mechanisation to turn a profit.
Kwale International Sugar Company Ltd (Kiscol) started operations three years ago, copying the successes of the countries exporting sugar to the region by adopting plantation and irrigation farming and mechanisation.
Last year, the firm's sugar yield was 74.86 per cent, crushing more than 290,000 tones of cane to produce 28,000 tonnes of sugar. This amounted to 14 per cent of the sugar produced in the country by its 12 factories, latest data from the Sugar Directorate shows.
"In three years, we now control 15 per cent of the market. As other millers are constantly depending on imports and processing to stay afloat, ours is a fresh-from-the-farm operation supported by zero imports. We don't even have a sugar import licence. In the next five years, we want to be among the top three players in this market," said Harshil Kotecha, the director of projects at Kiscol.
Model of farming
Its close to 5,500 acres of nucleus farms scattered across Kwale County, on the South Coast of Kenya, are dotted with drip irrigation pipes running into thousands of kilometres, ensuring a faster maturity and an all-year supply of cane.
"We have borrowed the sugarcane model of farming from Mauritius and invested in sustainable agriculture. This is the only way to do large-scale farming and it is high time that Kenyans understood that smallholder plots do not work for sugarcane," Kiscol agriculture operations manager Ravi Chandaran says as we tour the farms.
Kiscol is trying to mirror in the success of sugarcane farming in Mauritius, one of the largest exporters of sugar in Africa.
Irrigation enables Mauritius to produce more than 600,000 tonnes from its 62,000 hectares. Half the country's sugar is exported, bringing in 25 per cent of the export earnings.
"This is something that can be done. We have the same climate and soil composition as Mauritius and using technology and mechanisation we can achieve success by carefully managing the farms to feed the factory," explains Mr Chandaran, a Mauritian national.
The Kwale sugarcane firm, which boasts of Omnicare, the largest sugar producer in Mauritius, as one of its major shareholders, has invested in seven dams with a holding capacity of more than 20 million tonnes of water and an extra 30 boreholes, from which it pumps groundwater to irrigate its cane in the dry seasons, and whenever their dams are depleted.
These high-capacity dams can run the entire farm for more than six months without running dry. One of the seven dams has a capacity of 2.7 million cubic litres of water.
Kiscol uses the sub-surface drip irrigation systems installed by Amiran Kenya, in partnership with Netafim, an Israel firm that specialises in irrigation systems, to boost its cane production.
"We are using the drip system as opposed to flooding or sprinklers, as it supports the monitoring technology that ensures that an acre consumes just about 50 cubic metres, half the volume that would have been taken in when using other types of irrigation. It also uses water economically, minimising wastage that comes with other methods of irrigation, and also supports fertigation," Mr Chandaran said.
Fertigation is the injection of fertilisers, soil and water amendments and other water-soluble products into an irrigation system.
"Mechanisation and the use of newer farming technologies is the way to go. As it is, we are getting more yields on the farm, which is under irrigation, than on the parts that depend on rain for productivity.
"For instance, we are doing 84 tonnes of sugarcane per hectare on the area under irrigation, compared with 57 tonnes on similar acreage without the irrigation systems. Where our farmers still depend on rainfall, they get 51 tonnes per hectare," Mr Chandaran noted.
So far, Kiscol has more than 1,100 registered outgrowers producing sugarcane on 4,200 hectares of private land and they will also be on board within the next few years.
"We now use up to 80 per cent of our water from the dams and boreholes; this ensures that we have a good cane supply throughout the year for milling. With modern technology including a sub-surface drip-fed irrigation system, we are saving on 40 per cent of the water requirements for cane growth," Mr Chandaran said.
"The farm has also employed mechanisation, from cultivation, planting and weeding to harvesting which allows it to control the cane quality, limit wastage and also improve efficiency for the milling process to be done effectively.
"For instance, at the farms, we have integrated mechanisation that helps to carry out inter-row cultivation. This helps in weeding and also spacing the crop, using furrows for efficient rain water drainage, which allows the cane to only consume the quantity of water it actually needs. The mechanisation also allows for trash to be mixed with soil," said Mr Chandaran.
At its main pumping station, tonnes of fertiliser mixed with water come out of the treatment plant and are then fed to the cane through drip irrigation using a fertiliser injector.
Pamela Ogada, the general manager at Kiscol, said that yields from irrigated agriculture are always higher than those from rain-fed agriculture.
"With drip irrigation, it is easier to give the plant the exact amount of water it requires to grow well, and equally we can supply liquid fertiliser through the same drip through fertigation.
"At the beginning of last year, we had 1,195 hectares under irrigation and since then we have been able to achieve 4,200 hectares. What we have done so far is build our raw material capacity by turning to irrigation, which ensures that we have water throughout the year as well as the raw material. That way, the factory is kept running without any cane shortage," said Ms Ogada.
In the three years of its operations, Kiscol has seen its land under cane grow from 6,300 hectares to 9,477 last year, with its nucleus estate growing from 3,710 in 2015 to 4,791 hectares at the end of last year.
The sugar firms' outgrowers have also increased land under sugar to 4,686 hectares last year, from 2,682 hectares three years ago.
In three years of operations, Kiscol has received more than 600,000 tonnes of cane, with more than 400,000 tonnes coming from its own farms while the rest brought in by contracted farmers.
The sugar firm has also invested in research, having set aside an acre for planting 69 sugar varieties, which it uses to gauge their level of resistance, performance in the climate before choosing the best performing varieties for large scale production.
"We have taken advantage of the coastal climate which is very favourable to sugar. Through research, we now have grown in large scale cane whose maturity is between nine and 12 months compared with those grown in Western Kenya," Mr Chandaran said.