Sugarcane does just as well in Rakai – Sango Bay sugar estates owners
Soon after government announced its rejection of various land offers as alternatives to a portion of Mabira forest that President Museveni wants to give away to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Ltd (Scoul) to grow sugarcane, the Asian owners of Sango Bay Sugar Estates in Rakai district are offering Scoul 146,000 hectares of land for sugarcane growing.
On August 22, the state minister for ICT, Nyombi Thembo, told journalists at Parliament that cabinet had rejected various land offers because the land was not free, and would push on with the degazetting of Mabira Forest to allow Mehta to expand his sugarcane plantations.
“We looked at the land they are offering. It has squatters, and we cannot evict people because we want to grow sugarcane. That’s why we are saying that let’s give the degraded part of Mabira to Mehta to expand his plantations,” Nyombi said.
So far, government has received land offers from Buganda kingdom, Bulambuli district authorities and Namirembe diocese for sugarcane growing in a bid to save Mabira, but the establishment has snubbed all the gestures. However, the Asian owners of Sango Bay Sugar Estates are warning Mehta against accepting the government offer, since it is likely to cause “turmoil”.
“I don’t see any reason why government should insist on that forest. Mabira will not solve the sugar problem, and neither will importation of more sugar, because when you look at the market prices and take into account transportation costs, the sugar will arrive here at a higher price than the current one,” said Sharad Patel, the Sango Bay managing director.
By the 1972 expulsion of Asians by the late former President Idi Amin Dada, Sango Bay Sugar Estates was one of the leading sugar producers in the country.
The 146,000 hectare expanse of land was allocated to the Patel family for sugarcane growing in the 1930s by the colonial government. This estate, however, started crumbling in the 1970s due to weaknesses in management.
The Patel family repossessed the estate in the 1990s following the establishment of the Custodian Board, which handled the return of Asians’ assets to the rightful owners. A big chunk of this 146,000 hectare expanse is bare and is occasionally used by herdsmen, since the owners are still trying to raise funds to refurbish the sugar factory that was vandalized in the 1970s.
“These people only need a financial push from the government and they will start producing sugar,” says Kakuuto MP, Mathias Kasamba, who, along with the leadership in Rakai, is puzzled by the government’s obsession with giving away Mabira Forest.
“What is so special about Mehta that he is being cushioned by the government? If it’s about giving incentives to investors, the Sango Bay estates should have access to government incentives,” says Kasamba, a member of the ruling NRM party.
“The problem has been land, but now we have free land here, with some sugarcane already. Unless there are some sinister motives, there is no way the government can reject such an offer.
“If they are telling us about zoning sugar production, why isn’t it applicable to Rakai? Most youth here are jobless, but Sango Bay alone can employ more than 10,000 people. Whether it’s in the caucus or on the floor of Parliament, I will stand out to be counted among those that are against the Mabira give-away,” he added.
Kasamba’s remarks were prompted by complaints from people attending the silver jubilee celebrations for Mannya Catholic parish in Kifamba sub-county about the rate of environmental degradation in the country and the semi arid conditions in their area. The deputy coordinator of intelligence services, Brig Elly Kayanja, said Mabira has nothing to do with the extensive drought in the area.
“You’re making useless noise about Mabira, when you depleted Nabbunga hill of its tree cover,” Kayanja told the congregation.
However, he was quick to support the Patels’ land offer to Mehta and the rehabilitation of Sango Bay, saying it would create employment and bring development to the area.
“We need to create employment for our people here. If Sango Bay is redeveloped, it can offer an alternative to [the proposed] Mabira [give-away] and also address the sugar problem in the country,” Kayanka said.
Most of the sugarcane grown on the estate is sold to Kagera Sugar Works, located about 55 km away, in Tanzania. Ironically, some of the sugar produced at Kagera Sugar Works is exported to Uganda and is being sold in shops in Masaka region during the current sugar crisis. According to Patel, his company entered into an agreement with Kagera Sugar Works in which the latter buys Sango Bay sugarcane at a low price, since the former want to save their sugarcane seed.
“I want to keep my sugarcane seed and would be losing out if I don’t cut the mature sugarcane. It benefits them [Kagera] and we also benefit by saving our seed. Otherwise, they are not bringing in much money; I sell to them a very low price,” says Patel.
Sango Bay currently has about 200 hectares of sugarcane, from which they hope to get sugarcane seedlings for about 4,500 hectares.
Patel says he is willing to enter into a partnership with the government or with Scoul to redevelop his estate.
“Sugarcane does well here and is organic, just like the one they wish to grow in Mabira. I think they should save the forest,” Patel says.
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