January 2016

On the foothills of the Nandi Hills in western Kenya, the plains of Chemelil support an industry that sweetens many a cuppa tea

Sugar cane plantation in Chemelil

By Rupi Mangat

In the first light of dawn, the rays of the rising sun touch the green leaves of the sugar cane  fields that line the stretch of the Nandi Hills animating the day. Little black birds with a bright red-orange nape flit from stalk to stalk. Checking through the binoculars for a clearer view and then the bird book, it gets confusing – they look like Black bishops and the guide does say the geographical range is western Kenya but uncommon in moist grasslands and sugar cane fields. But these ones are a-flutter all over. Maybe l haven’t noticed something from afar that could make them something else. I wish one of my birding pals was with me.

The history of sugar cane plantations in western Kenya began in the early years of the 20th century – the first crop planted by Jagat Singh Pandhal who made the lakeshore town of Kisumu his home after the completion of the Uganda Railway. Having arrived in the 1890s from a tiny village in the Punjab to find work on the railway, he tried his hand at many crops on land that was virgin bush earmarked for farming by the colonial government. He made and lost his fortunes and died in Kibos in 1958.

Sugar cane plantation in Chemelil In the foreground is an invasive weed from South America – it’s called parthenium.

In the early days, it was all hand labour with bull carts and tilling the land with jembes. My earliest memory of the family home is a mabati hut and us sitting at night clustered around a lantern for dinner while my aunt laboured over the jiko making chapatis.

The sugar industry in western Kenya today is the pillar of the economy. With the changing times came modernization and machinery. The sugar area began to extend and by 1948 there were large-scale sugar farms in Chemelil. Kibos is 30  kilometers from Chemelil along the same road filled with sugar cane plantations.

Then came the sugar factories – in 1968, the Germans built Chemelil Sugar Factory a year after Muhoroni Sugar Factory. I’m being given the spiel by Steven Kibet the assistant chief of Nyagor sub location that straddles River Nyando and the Nandi Hills.

“It takes 18 months for the sugar cane to mature,” continues John Saum Kado, the agronomist. “Nzoia produces the best quality sugar cane wth high sucrose. I all depends on the soil.”

It sounds a little like wine.

With the changing times there are new concerns. The fast spreading noxious weed parthenium is spreading fast with no policy directive on how to exterminate. Like the ubiquitous water hyacinth on Lake Victoria. The authorities were aware of it in the early stages when it could have been eradicated. Now it’s too late. The tragedy with parthenium is that it has the potential of turning Kenya’s fertile soils infertile while carpeting them with a green veneer – making it a veritable green desert.

Taking the Awasi road to Kisumu, we run over Nyando again which begins its journey from the Mau hills and drains into Victoria. The rains have filled the rice paddies of Ahero and water birds like egrets stalk the fields for tasty water morsels.

Back in Chemelil, dusk pulls the sun to the horizon and lights the sky an amazing kladeiscope of colours – red, orange and gold behind the hills of Homa Bay.

Driving out of Awasi, the road to Ruma stretches ahead. It’s the only park with the rare Roan antelope left in the wild. Once widespread from the shores of Victoria to the Maasai Mara, they may well be on their way to extinction with 50 left. Yet humanity continues to edge in onto the park leaving little space for the last of the wild to be free.

Fact File

Try the new murram road from Londiani to Muhuroni – it’s scenic and winding with stunning views of the hills and valleys.

Take a leisurely trip to the western – it’s rich in agriculture, plenty to do on Lake Victoria and great sites o visit.

Combine a trip with the islands of Rusinga and Mfangano, the sugar fields by Chemelil from where you can visit prehistoric sites of Songhor and Fort Ternan with permission from the National Museums of Kenya.

Kakamega Forest, South Nandi Forest and North Nandi forest, Bonjoge national park, Koru are within easy reach of Chemelil.