Despite having retired his seat on the SA Canegrowers board after 37 years, KwaZulu-Natal sugarcane farmer Roy Sharma says he still wants to give back all he can to a sector from which he gained so much over his lifetime.

Like so many families in KwaZulu-Natal of Indian descent, Roy Sharma’s great grandfather arrived on the shores of southern Africa in 1883 as an indentured labourer contracted to the British army.

Once his contract was over the family settled on 6ha of land east of the sugar-milling town of Tongaat where they grew mainly vegetables.

Sharma’s grandfather, Hurrinundan was a community man who built both a temple and a school for the surrounding community, while his father, Thiluk died in 1962 leaving 10 children for his wife, Gocilia to care for.

At the time of his father’s death Sharma was just seven years old.

“Times were tough particularly as my eldest brother had to give up his studies and return home to run the farm. I tried to find work elsewhere, but when my brother died in 1983, I came home,” he said.

In three generations the Sharma operation has grown from 6ha under vegetables to 400ha planted to sugarcane, with 15ha under macadamia trees. The dryland cane yields about 50 tons a hectare, which is supplied to the nearby Maidstone mill.

And now with Pratish, his eldest son, in the driving seat, Sharma says crop diversification on is well under way.

Commercial grower Roy Sharma discusses the challenges facing the industry in a field planted to N39 on his 400ha farm near Maidstone, KwaZulu-Natal.

“We have planted more than 5 000 macadamia trees, and I sometimes joke that the sugar industry will eventually be standing in the middle of macadamia orchards because so many farmers are planting them. But the sugar industry has to diversify. There are so many challenges facing us now. We can no longer rely on returns from the cane crop alone,” he said.

Sharma, who has served SA Canegrowers since its inception in 1992 on various structures, including its board, says the reason for his retirement is to make way for fresh minds and new ideas.

“I have been around for many years and gained institutional knowledge that is invaluable. That is one of the reasons I really enjoyed it when in bidding me farewell, former SA Canegrowers board chairman Graeme Stainbank said the organisation would be tapping into my knowledge whenever it needs to. I can still give so much and that’s what I want to do, because the sugar industry has made me who I am today. It has given me so much.”

During his tenure, Sharma also served as president of the World Association of Beet and Cane Growers (WABCG), as well as a stint on the South African Sugar Association Council.

Resting serenely across the valley from Sharma’s homestead is a temple built by his grandfather, Hurrinundan.

But it’s the parlous state of the sugar industry where Sharma says he has a role to play, using his vast knowledge and experience to build a future for the sector based on dialogue between the stakeholders.

“There is this mistrust between millers and growers. I believe it is now critical for our future survival that we create an environment of trust, so we can have a heart-to-heart conversation and create a platform where we can support each other. We have to find innovative ways to move the sugar industry forward.  So many people depend on this industry, it must survive and thrive.”

On the highlights of his career, Sharma said being asked to facilitate the 2015 International Sugar Organisation conference in London was a landmark moment for him.

“Serving on the WABCG was also a great experience. I travelled all over the world, worked with great leaders and I believe I became known in the industry as someone who can be trusted.”

Deeply rooted in the culture of his Hindu faith, Sharma says there is nothing better than first-hand experience in life, which is how he learned to farm.

“Pratish, who is not only my son but my best friend, is taking over on the farm. We work so well together and yes, we have our disagreements, but that’s how we learn from each other. I see him taking up his position as a leader in the industry, following in my footsteps. My message to him, always, is to ‘walk the straight and narrow, to use the path that is tried and tested to take you to the goals you have set for yourself, and always know, there is no substitute for honesty’.”