Tongaat Hulett Strategy Director Dave Meadows says, while he might be considered as one of a dying breed having stayed with the same company his entire working career, the reason behind it was because the community in which he worked was driven by a fundamental code of ethics and a genuine desire to make a difference.

“And that’s not just a cynical sop. It’s not just what you read in glossy corporate reports. The people with whom I work are real professionals, competent and decent people. I believe in the product we produce, in the vision of this company and what we want to achieve in business and society,” Meadows said.

As an agri-business the company believes it has a socio-economic responsibility and a positive role to play in the communities it operates in. 

“This is a genuine part of Tongaat Hulett’s value system, from the CEO all the way down. As you can see I am emotionally invested in this company. It is these things that have kept me here.”

The father of three boys and married to Sue, an accountant by profession, Meadows studied Chemical Engineering at the University of Natal (now UKZN), graduating cum laude in 1986.  Interestingly, Meadows chose a chemical engineering degree because it was alleged to be the most difficult.

“I did a University of Natal vocational guidance test when I was at Northwood Boys High School and it was recommended I do either exact sciences or fine arts. Of course, chemical engineering is neither. But I was told it was the most difficult degree and that challenge really appealed to me!”

He landed his first job at Tongaat Hulett’s Darnall mill as an Assistant Engineer. 

“I was fortunate enough to have been awarded a scholarship by Tongaat Hulett for my degree, so I had a work obligation to the company.” Since then Meadows has worked in “about 8 or 9” different positions, and the variety and new challenges sustained his interest through his 28-year career in the company.


Asked about his industry, Meadows said that the sugarcane agriculture and agri-processing sectors were uniquely placed to build and develop agriculture-based economies particularly in deep rural areas where communities often had few alternatives.

“The reason I say this is because of the very nature of the sugarcane plant itself. Sugarcane uses the efficient C4 photosynthetic process to ‘grab’ sunlight and carbon dioxide which it then turns into carbohydrate – whether in the form of the final refined sugar you see on the supermarket shelves or the biomass the sugar mills use to make their own electricity.  It does this conversion better than nearly any other plant.  Also, once the crop is planted it “ratoons”, or continues to grow from its roots after harvesting for another 5 to 10 years, meaning replanting on an annual basis is unnecessary.”

Also, the very structure of the highly organised industry meant new farmers, especially small-scale and land reform farmers, had a guaranteed route to market.

“If you are a sugarcane farmer, once you’ve grown and harvested your crop, and delivered it to a nearby mill, the rest is pretty well mapped out for you. Market access and payment are guaranteed, reducing the risk experienced by new entrants in other agriculture.”

In Mozambique and Zimbabwe, Tongaat Hulett is the largest employer after the government and Meadows said the group engaged closely with those governments.

“We have seen how those relationships, particularly in Mozambique, have resulted in sugarcane being used as a very good vehicle for socio-economic investment and upliftment, in bringing services and an opportunity for a steady income to rural people. With the establishment of sugarcane agriculture in rural communities, we build clinics and schools where such amenities did not exist before.  And we focus on economic development and skills transfer, to empower individuals and communities to farm for themselves.”


But in South Africa, Meadows agreed the R12 billion industry was at a cross roads and more had to be done to spread the message of its key importance to the economy of the country and the province of KwaZulu-Natal.  Approximately one million South Africans depend on the sugar industry for their livelihood.

“There is no fundamental reason why we cannot have a successful, sustainable sugar industry in South Africa in the long term.”

But he stressed an absolute requirement for success was a “constructive and mutually respectful relationship with government”.

“Tongaat Hulett operates out of a belief in such a partnership.  A successful sugar industry also needs to be producing at least the three readily producible products from sugarcane, sugar, fuel ethanol and electricity to realise its full potential and be globally competitive.”

In 2005, Meadows on behalf of the sugar industry made his first presentation to the Department of Energy on the benefits of the production of electricity from the country’s 14 sugar mills. 

He expressed frustration that some12 years later, government and the sugar industry had yet to find each other.

While governments in countries such as Brazil provide significant support to their sugar industries for the production of energy products, in South Africa, ongoing engagement between the sugar industry and government on this critical topic has not yet borne fruit.  New impetus has been given to these discussions, though, by the consultation process between business, government and labour on the new soft drink tax.”


Referring to the proposed 20% tax on sugary drinks, Meadows said: “Unfortunately the world, in seeking a scapegoat for obesity has settled for the time being on sugar. And I use those words advisedly, because in time, when it becomes clear that sugar does not cause obesity, another culprit will be sought.  I have researched this in depth, it is a passion of mine, and science tells us that sugar has no adverse health effects other than contributing to tooth decay.  Obesity is caused by eating more calories than your body needs.”

However, he was upbeat about the future of sugarcane.

“The key must be the energy potential of the crop, whether food energy for people, food energy for livestock, liquid fuel or electric power. We are well short of any kind of ceiling in terms of sugarcane yield, especially if we can favour the production of sugarcane biomass at the expense of sucrose yield. In Brazil I’ve seen a variety of energy cane, grown under trial conditions, able to produce yields three to four times that of conventional cane. So if we don’t focus only on sucrose content we can use the biomass and carbohydrates for electricity and ethanol. And the SADC region has the agronomic potential to produce as much sugarcane-based ethanol as Brazil. The economic and job creation potential of that is endless,” he says.


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