A workman on a tractor in sugarcane fields in the Umhlali area, North Coast, KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency(ANA)

By Fay Mukaddam

Just seven months before the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc in the world, Dr Bennie Fanaroff – the former founding director of the world-acclaimed Square Kilometre Array South Africa, former deputy director-general in the office of the late revered statesman Nelson Mandela and an anti-apartheid activist – urged the sugar industry “to look beyond the horizon” to ensure its sustainability.

Fanaroff delivered this key message during his keynote address at the 92nd South African Sugar Technologists’ Association (Sasta) Congress in Durban in 2019.

Four years later, speaking at the Sasta Congress in Durban on August 15, 2023, Wandile Sihlobo, the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, provided a detailed update on the economic state of the country and the rest of the world. South Africa is hosting the 15th BRICS Summit, under the theme “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development and Inclusive Multilateralism”.

As South Africa, the African Continental Free Trade Area holds promise for the country’s economic opportunities. Not in any way forgetting our global markets.

Here at home, the sugar industry, which operates in deeply rural and job-starved areas of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, has heeded Fanaroff’s counsel to look beyond the horizon and be innovative in order to secure its future and sustainability.

As the result of the all-important Sugar Cane Value Chain Master Plan to 2030, it has identified product diversification opportunities. These include sustainable aviation fuel, bio-ethanol for fuel blending, food additives and bioplastics.

Most projects are at scoping, market analysis or pre-feasibility stages, with Department of Science and Innovation and the Industrial Development Corporation providing some financial support (co-funding) for some of the scoping work.

The Reimagined Sugar Cane Industry Strategy seeks to unlock the full potential of the cane stalk. Innovation is now the buzzword for the industry. We either have to innovate or die a natural death.

Innovation will allow us to diversify our revenue stream, not only rely on our core product (sugar). Technology is also of critical importance in this regard. Therefore, the role played by Sasta cannot be overstated.

The recent Sasta Congress demonstrated just how important scientific and technical expertise and skills are for the industry, which is on the cusp of innovation revolution. The paper on chemical ripening of cane (by Riekert van Heerden) showed the great results of employing unorthodox thinking by using drones to ripen the cane belonging to small-scale growers and the resultant financial benefits. The small-scale growers are a crucial component of the strategy.

Another important point which came out of the Sasta Congress was related to Mother Nature and its impact on the agricultural sector. Sithole et al (2023) pointed out that: “The South African sugar industry produced just over 4% more cane and sugar in the 2022/23 season than in the 2021/22 season”, and this mainly due to “favourable climatic conditions”.

Just across our borders, in Eswatini, comes a sweet story of Mbetseni Farmers (MFs), consisting of 10 farmers, who have been successfully farming rainfed cane on a 90-hectare land. The authors of the paper, Patrick Mkhaliphi and Justice Mabuza, state: “Trough technical intervention and support, MFs have been able to remain viable and profitable by growing dryland sugar cane.

“Using the profits that they have attained, 70% of the farmers have paid all their capital costs and continue to sustain their businesses, while they plan to continue improving their irrigation system further in the future.”

The industry has been facing some economic challenges. Richard Nicholson’s paper painted a gloomy picture of the industry, a reality that the sector is under siege from several cost pressures, and thereby the inescapable need for the above-CPI (consumer price inflation) notional increase.

Nicholson recommended that there be “a review of the Producer Price Restraint in the Master Plan needs to be undertaken”, hastening to clarify: “This is not to say that there should not be any certainty in the producer price increases, but rather, review the CPI mechanism for price increases because, as the evidence shows, the CPI rate of change does not keep up with the steep increases in producer costs over time”.

Cognisant of the serious challenges that continue to plague the industry, all leaders are committed to ensuring the resounding success of the Reimagined Sugar Cane Industry.

Transformation of the industry in its entirety forms a critical element of the strategy. IkuSASA (the future) of the industry has begun in earnest. Bold vision, courageous stewardship and true industry collaboration is paramount, and only thencan we ensure sustainable progress in transforming our industry.

Leveraging technology must feature prominently in the future we envisage. In the words of the late former US secretary general, Kofi Annan: “The world will not wait for us. The technological revolution will leave us behind if we do not catch up.”

Advocate Fay Mukaddam is an independent chairperson of South African Sugar Association.