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Sugar beet farming offers solution to Kenya’s sugar & fodder woes

Despite one-fifth of the world’s sugar now being gotten from sugar beets and most of the world’s industrialised nations using it as their main sugar source, its adoption in Kenya, as with most of Africa remains limited. 

However, given that it is more economical to produce than sugarcane and can also be used as high-quality fodder, the crop is slowly being embraced by Kenyan farmers.

Global demand for beet sugar is projected to expand by 5.5 per cent every year, taking it’s market valuation to $7.8bn by 2034. This demand is being driven by the rising use of beet sugar as an alternative to cane and high-fructose corn syrup in the food and beverage industry as well as its utility as animal fodder.

According to the AFA’s Sugar Directorate, Kenyans consumed 1,131,129 tonnes of sugar in 2022. 28 percent, 320,708 tonnes, of this was imported.

Yet sugar beet sugar production is more economical than sugarcane due to its shorter maturity time, higher sugar content, double-year harvest, far less land and water consumption as well as comparable or better production per hectare.

55 per cent of the United States’s sugar comes from sugar beet. In Kenya, despite being able to be grown in 27 per cent of the country’s landmass, its cultivation by farmers is minuscule due to a lack of commercialisation. 

This is slowly changing. The Nyandarua Sugar Company (NSC) has set up Ranges Sugar Factory in Wanjohi, Kipipiri constituency which became operational in January this year. This is the country’s first commercial sugar beet processing plant

The Nyandarua County Government issued beet seeds to farmers to encourage them

to venture into this novel farming. Through collaborations between investors, farmers, the government, and researchers, the county is looking to become a leading sugar-producing hub.

Commercial ethanol fuel production from sugar beet syrup has also been shown to be economically feasible in Kenya. The quantity of sugar beet syrup produced in Kenya can yield a quantity of bioethanol that can significantly supplement the fuel market demand.

Other byproducts of sugar beet processing include the beet top which is withered and fed to livestock as green fodder, and beet pulp which also serves as cattle feed. Molasses and pressed pulp are useful byproducts for farmers and industrial consumers. Pressed pulp is also used to generate biogas, while filler cake obtained as ‘waste’ is used as organic manure. 

Studies have shown that partial replacement of feed ingredients such as yellow corn grains with dry sugar beet pulp (DSBP) led to significant improvements in cow digestion, rumen activity, milk yield, milk composition, and feed use. There was also a reduction in feed cost and an increase in milk yield as the DSBP was increased in the ration.

High plane animal fodder

According to the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), fodder beet is a rich energy source for livestock providing them with highly palatable rich energy feed with nutritive value similar to cereal grains. The agricultural research institute adds that while the fodder beet is tedious to produce, it makes up for this in yield and animal performance.

“Average tuber yield is 13–17 tonnes dry matter/ha. The leaves/tops will also contribute a further 3–4 tonnes of dry matter/ha. Roots are high in energy but low in protein with crude protein values of 6%, whereas the tops are modest in energy levels and reasonably high in crude protein compared with the root,” reads the report, Fodder beet (Beta vulgaris) for livestock feed on small-scale farms.

Growing Conditions

Sugar beet thrive in well-fertilised and drained soils. It is preferable to grow them at a pH between 6.0 and 7.5. with full exposure to the sun.

Suitable regions

Sugar beet traditionally grows well in temperate climates. 

However, new tropicalised cultivars such as Sygenta SB and Simlaw’s Sugar Beet Sugar Top have been developed that thrive in most parts of Kenya.

In trials across various ecological zones of Nyandarua, Tropical Sugar Beets (TSB), was shown to yield between 60-100 tons per hectare and could therefore support and sustain commercial cultivation of the crop, surpassing the breakeven point calculated at 50 tons per hectare.

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