As KwaZulu-Natal’s sugar cane growers start to recover from the effects of the drought, the South African Canegrowers’ Association (SA Canegrowers) is urging the industry to remain resilient and look for opportunities to diversify their operations.
At its ninetieth annual general meeting at the association’s head office in Mount Edgecombe, Durban, last month, SA Canegrowers outgoing chairperson Tim Murray reminded growers that, while the challenges for the industry had intensified, they were not that different from those almost a century ago. “The objective for the future remains one of ensuring a sustainable South African cane growing sector.”
The severe drought, which spanned two seasons – from the end of 2014 to the spring of 2017 – was one of the toughest challenges in the history of the South African sugar industry, SA Canegrowers economic research manager Richard Nicholson tells Engineering News. The relatively small crop yield over this period caused an overall loss in sugar cane grower revenue of more than R2-billion, severely impacting on local economies in rural areas, as production on farms and mills slowed down and at least two mills did not open over the period.
In the 2016/17 season, 14 sugar mills crushed a crop of 15 074 610 t of cane, which was 213 215 t larger than the 2015/16 crop. The total saleable sugar amounted to 1 539 739 t, of which 1 534 741 t were sold on the local market, leaving no sugar for export. Other challenges over the period were the high concentration of eldana moths in the midlands and the emergence of the longhorn beetle in the Eshowe and Entumeni regions, which pose threats to crops.
Nicholson points out that the sugar cane sector has a significant multiplier effect along the rural and agricultural value chains, with these challenges resulting in an estimated R6.4-billion loss in these value chains over the past two seasons. “However, growers are resilient and are slowly [returning to] . . . normal production, which will ensure rural jobs are kept and the economies in these areas are stimulated.”
Nicholson highlights that sugar cane as a crop has the ability to bounce back quickly after a drought and, with improved summer and autumn rainfall, the 2017/18 season is looking more optimistic from a production point of view. Growers are noting increased yields, compared with those of last year, with the overall crop yield up 14%, and the dryland production of KwaZulu-Natal being the main improvement. The crop is currently estimated at 17 190 900 t of cane for the season.
SA Canegrowers has highlighted diversification in the sugar grower industry as a key focus for ensuring the sector’s sustainability as it begins to recover. Nicholson points out that diversification in sugar cane-producing regions can help farmers to ensure stable cash flows, but adds that there are policy hurdles regarding the cogeneration of electricity from mills and their feeding the electricity into the grid.
“Ethanol is another form of industrial diversification which could be beneficial to the industry; however, the current oil price does not warrant the expansion into ethanol just yet. A new industry could potentially be developed for the future, but this will require assistance to get started.”
SA Canegrowers also has a number of initiatives to assist in improving grower sustainability. This includes the development of a dedicated innovations group within the association, which aims to provide on-farm innovations and solutions to ensure that sugar cane plants are used to their fullest and that farming systems are as efficiently as possible. This is done using data and technology to improve management decision-making.
The association has also implemented a “back to basics” programme, which aims to help growers implement simple management savings that are beneficial to their bottom lines.
Last year, SA Canegrowers also launched a benefit scheme, which provides basic funeral benefits and a death-in-service pension for permanent and seasonal workers in the industry, and their extended families.
“The underlying principle of the scheme is to acknowledge farm workers as the most vulnerable in our sector and to provide them with a comprehensive basket of affordable, customised, innovative benefits. “With time, the surpluses will be ploughed back into the scheme to further enhance farm worker benefits,” concludes Murray.