Once a common sight in KwaZulu-Natal, the last narrow gauge railway line to haul cane is still the most profitable mode of transport in the sugarcane industry, according to both millers and growers on the Umfolozi flood plain.
Standing in the fierce midday sun, the vast sugarcane fields spread to the horizon, the only sound besides the cicadas is the rhythmic thud of a locomotive diesel engine way out of sight.
The screech of the iron wheels on the narrow rails and the uneven rhythm of the heavily loaded “Ngollovans” (train wagons in isiZulu) as they protest against their hitches, grows more persistent before the red diesel engine draws into sight, past a mimosa tree, around the corner on its slow, purposeful way to the Umfolozi Sugar Mill.
The ground underfoot trembles. The heat shimmers.
By way of a greeting, the driver gives a good yank on the horn sending out a blast reminiscent of the days of steam locomotives and long slow train journeys.
This is the last operational narrow gauge railway still being used to deliver sugarcane from the field to the factory in South Africa’s sugar industry.
And while it may present a romantic and reminiscent sight of days gone by, in reality these diesel locomotives and their 400 ton tail of cane stacks, play a critical role in the cost efficacy of sugarcane production and milling on the Umfolozi flood plain.
Operated by Umfolozi Sugar Planters or UCOSP, whose members own about 9 000has of farmland under cane and a collective shareholding in the Umfolozi Sugar Mill, the narrow gauge railway is considered one of the most cost effective forms of transport in the sugarcane producing industry, particularly in wet conditions.
FIVE LOCOMOTIVES DELIVER 750 000 TONS
The locomotives, of which there are five altogether, deliver on average 750 000 tons of sugar in a season to the mill using two locomotives (Monzi and Nyosi) with one on standby (Mahlombe) and one track maintenance locomotive (Gou Gou).
When the fully loaded locomotive finally reaches the mill a tippler system is used for offloading the trams.
The mill itself has one locomotive (Demonia) for mill yard operations also operated under the auspices of the grower membership group.
By its very nature sugarcane is a bulky and costly crop to transport, but the Umfolozi growers have harnessed this self-sufficient mode of transport to cut costs and reduce turnaround time between a burn and delivery for milling to protect sucrose content.
Further the train is ideal for the flat, floodplain conditions, and is effectively a stockholding on wheels.
The system operates 24-hours-a-day, 7 days a week and delivers on average about 3 600 tons of sugarcane a day in a 36-week season between April and December.
UNIQUE COMMUNAL MANAGEMENT
The Umfolozi Sugar Planters (UCOSP) is a unique communal management concept with its own staff, equipment and workshop facility that ensures the self-sufficiency and focus on sustainability for the Umfolozi Mill and its surrounding growers.
This partnership also provides its grower members with river flood protection while maintaining concrete spillways, drainage canals and raised riverbanks. UCOSP also maintains its own farm road network of about 90kms as well as the 87kms tramline system.
Also unique to South Africa’s sugar industry is the ownership of the Umfolozi Sugar Mill – which collectively includes almost all of the supplying growers, including those who were beneficiaries of land reform projects, small-scale growers and commercial operations – and NCP Alcohols – a company producing fermentation alcohol for the domestic and international beverage, cosmetic and pharmaceutical markets. NCP also buys all the molasses from the plant for fermentation at their distillery at Sea Cow Lake in Durban.
The Umfolozi Mill was first built in 1916 by the St Lucia Sugar Company, however it was destroyed during a seasonal flood, which resulted in the factory being auctioned off in 1923 to a group of farmers led by George Heaton Nicholls.
Following another flood in 1925, the mill was moved to higher ground where it stands today.
In 1991 the mill was bought by CG Smith Sugar Limited, which later changed its name to Illovo Sugar Limited. In 2005 the mill and its adjacent properties were bought by the Sokhela Family Trust in what was hailed as a landmark black economic empowerment deal.
However, in 2008 the mill was taken over once again by Illovo and after lengthy negotiations a consortium consisting of growers and NCP Alcohols took over the mill on April 1, 2009.
In a normal season cane supply totals 1,2 million tons of which 65% is harvested on the Umfolozi Flats. The remaining supply is delivered by road from mainly small scale growers who together harvest about 120 000 tons.
IMPORTS PERSONIFY THE SEASON
Summarising the 2017/18 milling season, Adrian Wynne, the CEO of the mill said it was characterized by the significant import of cheap sugar into the South African Customs Union region resulting in “curtailed” sales for all domestic sugar producers. “These are tough times, but we are continuing to invest in the mill to make sure it runs smoothly and is sustainable, Wynne said.
The future sustainability of the mill, Wynne said was critical to the broader rural community around the Zululand town of Mtubatuba. “We prioritise the investment in our people and their skills as it is critical to the sustainability of the business. And by doing that not only do we sustain the livelihoods of our employees, but as the main corporate business in Mtubatuba, we indirectly support the broader community, which includes the growers and companies that provide services to us. This region has a high unemployment and HIV/Aids infection rate, so making sure we maintain a thriving business here in northern Zululand that supports the local economy is really important,” he said.
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