The sugar industry In Kenya supports 2-6 million people and its worth about $540 million. The industry is characterised by old factories and inefficiency, they have massive debts, and there is rampant cane poaching amongst the different players. There are new entrants into the market however; Mumias produces the bulk of Kenya’s sugar. The problems the sugar sector has also include over reliance on smallholder firms, less timely and consistent crops with long growing cycles (15-20 months) other countries (10-12 months). It’s worth noting that current schemes in Kenya are 100% rain fed. The industry is propped by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) safe guards without which competition would knock it out.
Hello, would you kindly give us a brief introduction of yourself
My name is Engineer Josephat Asira. I am the Director of Factory Operations (D.F.O) at Mumias Sugar. I began as a graduate trainee; I graduated from the University of Nairobi with bachelors in electrical engineering. From there I joined the Ministry of Public Works, where I worked for about a year and then I moved on to Mumias Sugar, I came in as a management trainee under the Factory Department. In Mumias, I have gone through various training in mechanical and automation operations as well as sugar technology, which are what let to me getting to this position.
Tell us more about the factory for which you work, and your experiences from the beginning of your career here and the major changes you have seen take place.
The company has a rich history; it began in 1973 as a small factory and over the years, it has undergone several upgrades to improve its capacity as well as its technology for processing cane into sugar. In the last four years, Mumias Sugar Company has also ventured into the production of other goods. From the traditional cane sugar producer, it has moved to power producing, selling power to the grid, as well as ethanol production.
Initially, when I came to this factory, I found it extracting juice-using mills. However, in 1997 Mumias introduced diffusion technology that is a more efficient way of extracting juice or sucrose from cane. If you want to compare milling and diffusion in this country, with mills their highest extraction percentage is about 92%, but with diffusion technology we can go above 95% towards 96% extraction efficiency. In addition, when I joined the company I discovered or rather we found that most of the operations and processes were manual, so to improve efficiency, one of the things we introduced was automation.
As far as automation is concerned, the biggest challenge that I see is the issue of upgrades. In a company like this, one we would like to install technology that we know in five year will still be here and supported. However, we have issues with automation where within two to three years we are told what we have has become obsolete. To keep up is a bit expensive and the only way to properly address this challenge is by adequately training the people who are here so that they can be able to support whatever system we have for at least five years, but otherwise it is very expensive trying to keep up with technology itself.
Running a factory like this one successfully depends on how well you manage the operations efficiently. How efficient are your operations and processes?
Our process right from cane harvest all the way up to sugar production is efficient but speaking as an engineer there is still a lot of room for improvement. We have to continuously improve, the sole purpose being reducing the cost of production. As I sit here, I am not saying that there isn’t anything more to do in terms of the efficiency of the process. In fact, we are still working on improving effectiveness by looking at better machines and better equipments that can assist us in reducing cost of production. Now I would say that we are still a step behind, we try to keep ourselves as close as possible to what is happening in the trades of the international sugar industry by diversification.
To run this establishment you must rely on different and diverse talents right from cane growing to sugar sales. What kinds of engineers do you have?
The factory employs two types of engineers mainly, mechanical engineers, and electrical engineers. Outside there, in our agricultural services department, we have several other types of engineers who deal with the fields, the roads, and the like. Now, the role of both the electrical and mechanical engineers is chiefly maintenance because as you would guess, a plant like this has a heavy dependence on heavy machinery and other equipments and thus requires quite a bit of maintenance input. The engineers are actually the backbone of this place and are the reason behind the plant’s good performance.
How do these engineers contribute to the smooth running of the plant, and are there innovative activities they are involved in?
Our engineers do many innovative things in this place, you will realise that running a factory like this in the countryside, away from major support is difficult. It requires that our engineers remain highly innovative in order to support control systems without necessarily stopping and waiting for support from aboard. Therefore, the engineers who work in a plant like this one are constantly innovative not only due to the distance between the potential support and us but also because of the frequency of change in technology.
Unfortunately, I feel that engineers are not given an opportunity to express themselves. There is the notion that everything good, everything modern has to come from outside the country. We need to allow our engineers to express their innovations, test their innovations in our plants so that we can also have local solutions other than always depending on outside support. So for one, the engineers themselves need to show that they can actually contribute, in other words, manufacture things locally. Secondly, if we get engineers in positions like these then it will become easier for us to allow them to implement their innovations in our plant.
Last year the sugar sector experienced several challenges even leading to the government allowing sugar importation. Why is local sugar more expensive that foreign sugar?
The reason sugar purchased from abroad is cheaper than locally produced sugar lies in the cost of production. If I talk about the industry as a whole, you will find that the technologies that are being used here are making things slightly more expensive. The other issue obviously is cane production. Although I must say that I am not a cane production expert, generally the cost of cane is quite high and when the whole cane harvest process is not mechanized then it is quite costly. Therefore, that is why this country tends to be a high sugar cost country. Cost of production is the problem. I would add that for Mumias this might not be a major issue because of the technological advances we have been able to implement here and the level of automation that lowers our cost of production.
What makes the cost of production and doing business in Kenya high especially in the agricultural sector, your case being sugar-processing industry?
The cost of starting any business is very high in this country. What I can put my finger on that makes doing business particularly expensive is the cost power. Mumias Sugar uses power from Kenya power lighting only when we are restarting the factory or when we have stopped the plant, but when we are running the factory, the factory generates its own power for internal use and we sell the excess to Kenya power. This high cost of power needed by the companies naturally drive companies away from Kenya. Besides, the price of power, there is also the cost of infrastructure, which makes manufacturing cost high.
I think we need to reduce the cost of power fast, looking at a country like ours compared to industrialised countries like Germany, you see that the cost of power in Germany is probably less than half the cost of power in this country. This is one aspect of manufacturing making it expensive in Kenya.
How can engineers solve the problems that are encountered in the industry and those in the country that include unemployment?
Engineers need to change the notion that they have to be employed. They should move to self-employment and that will obviously open up the industry. However, there is a perception among Kenyans that make it hard for this industry to expand. You will find that if you go to look for a job, maybe even a position as a consultant in upper industries, the person hiring will think that what you can offer is inferior to what someone from abroad could. This is a major issue and it slows down the growth of engineers and even the growth of those entrepreneurs who like to build up their business.
Still, I am glad that when you look at the Constitution of this county we are talking about Vision 2030 and empowering the youth. These are the things that are going to have a big impact on how people grow, engineers included.
To keep your operations and acquire technical talent you must recruit a lot. What is your view on the technical training in the country and its supply from our institutions?
We need to revive the technical training institutes because I believe that not everybody will be able to get into university. Looking at the current system, they are very few options for those individuals who do not qualify to get into university. Previously there used to be technical training institutes that would bring up those who could not get into a university and they would end up either in the industry. After getting a diploma, they would be employed afterwards, and maybe would get into university later, but those options are now very few, unfortunately for Kenya. The way I look at it, is that if you don’t get to into university it is as if your growth is stoped and for us to really open up the field of industrialization we need technical skills and we need those technical institutes.
You see, in a factory like this one, we need graduates, we need technicians, and looking at the ratio of graduates to technicians, you will find that technicians are more than graduates are. For this reason, we need to focus on those technical and training institutes, the polytechnics, and the likes to be able to develop skilled labor. As we speak now we are beginning to struggle getting qualified or skilled labour for those positions like technicians and below. What is going to happen is that we will probably begin to employ graduates into technician level work and again this may or may not be good for them. I still believe that we need to have some technicians who have come from proper technical training institutes to be able to sort out the skill gap at that lower level.
COMESA safe guards may soon be lifted on the sugar industry. This will lead to an influx of sugar from other countries. What is your view on this and its probable effects?
The perception is that cheap sugar will flood the country and if that is true then obviously the sugar factories in this country will struggle to sell their products. All we will need to address is the cost of the production and Mumias is doing that. Therefore, we should not be scared of lifting COMESA safeguards or competition. In actuality, they are some companies that will be forced to be more efficient; in fact, most will be forced to be more efficient.
Sugar will always be required on our tables. So for me the market is there, what we need to work on is the cost of the production, to be able to be competitive so that when people start bringing sugar from aboard we can compete with them price wise. So as far as I am concerned this industry is going to be here, looking at the market and looking at how it is supporting the locals it is something that is definitely going to be here for a long time.
As a senior engineer in a position of responsibility in a major manufacturing establishment in Kenya. What would you tell other engineers especially the up and coming ones?
I wish to encourage the engineers that they should work hard and when they come from the universities implement what they learn from there. Engineering is a very interesting profession; the market is there, though it demands a lot of discipline. Engineers makes things happen, they don’t talk, they actually make things happen, so it is good for them to pursue engineering degrees, take it seriously and have hope, work hard so that they can grow up the company ladders, even come up to a position like this one I am in as a director of factory operations. It is not that engineers are always in overalls and work hidden somewhere by a machine; the opportunities are there for very good and performing engineers to rise up to the top and lead successful companies.