“All of us have to rise above the mire and detail of our parochial vested interest mindsets and work towards what is for the greater good and survival of South Africa’s sugar industry.” – Rex Talmage Chairman SA Canegrowers

Newly elected SA Canegrowers chairman and northern KwaZulu-Natal sugarcane farmer Rex Talmage says he has committed his tenure in the “hot seat” to supporting the re-structuring and transformation of the sector in a bid to stave off its collapse.

“What we need now is laser sharp focus by our industry leadership across all spheres to align to a common purpose, which includes bringing innovative solutions to an agricultural industry that is absolutely critical for the well-being of at least a million South Africans,” he said.

The leadership of the sugar industry, which included the South African Sugar Association, the millers, the South African Farmers Development Association, SA Canegrowers and the South African government, he added, must put aside their parochial and individual agendas and focus on working in partnership to secure a sustainable future for the sector.

“We have to be committed to collaboration that is sincere and dedicated to the stabilisation of the industry at a macro level first. Working in our individual silos just doesn’t make sense if we are to refine our focus.”

Quick fix solutions are now urgent

The production of fuel-grade ethanol, an increase in the tariff on imported sugar and a co-ordinated effort to snuff out illegal sugar imports over the country’s porous borders, Talmage said, were now critical “quick fixes” to shore up the industry in the short term.

Further, a surcharge must be imposed on sugar importers who were making a “mint” out of the cheap sugar that had flooded into the country since late 2017 effectively displacing South African grown and milled sugar onto the dumped world market at a significant loss.

“Sugar importers should contribute to the sustainability of our industry. They are pocketing huge profits at the expense of a sector that is critical to the health of the socio-economic fabric in rural areas. For example, the decline in the industry has had a massive impact on country towns where economic activities are dependent on the sugar sector. The effects have also been felt in rural communities, where many families rely on their sugarcane crop to supplement household income in both KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.”

In the medium to long term, Talmage said, solutions under consideration and research included the production of jet-fuel ethanol, bio-plastics, and the more effective use of bagasse or the sugarcane bio-waste, which is currently used to supply free and “green” electricity to the industry’s 14 sugar mills.

Sugar sector ahead on transformation

He said while the transformation of land ownership in the sugar sector was probably way ahead of any other agricultural sector in the country, more work had to be done.

“The sugar industry comprehensively aligned itself with the government agenda as long ago as 1996. More than 29 800ha of land under cane has been transferred to black ownership via redistribution and 46 896ha through restitution in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. Anecdotal evidence suggests we are the most transformed agricultural sector in the country. We must continue to carry out this plan so we achieve its very important objectives, but, we also have to make sure there aren’t unintended economic consequences that undermine the entire basis for which the plan is intended, or indeed the sustainability of this key agri-processing industry,” he said.

Describing himself as someone who liked to “roll up his sleeves” and get to the heart of an issue to find solutions as quickly as possible, Talmage is no stranger to the role of leadership.

As the head of Churchill House and a school prefect at the prestigious Hilton College from where he matriculated at 17, Talmage was one of the last groups of youngsters conscripted into national service under the Nationalist government in 1990.

“That was an experience we all had to endure, I tried to make the most of it, first qualifying as a PTI weapon instructor then being selected for the Air Force Officer course and being elected by my peers as course leader at just 18 years of age.”

Once discharged from duty, Talmage followed a career in agriculture by enrolling at the Landbou Kollege (Agricultural College) in Nelspruit where he specialised in sub-tropical crops, including sugarcane. During these years he was elected chairman of the Student Representative Council.

“I then took a sabbatical with a friend and travelled to the UK and the United States before returning to South Africa when my father died in 1995. Because I was the only unmarried sibling I chose to stay with my mother and carry on the farming in partnership with my brother Earl, rather than return to the States.”

Chairman of SA Canegrowers Rex Talmage on the Talmage family sugarcane farm, Baton Rouge Estates, just a stone’s throw from the Amatikulu Mill in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Chairman of SA Canegrowers Rex Talmage on the Talmage family sugarcane farm, Baton Rouge Estates, just a stone’s throw from the Amatikulu Mill in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

From the time he returned home, Talmage has served on numerous industry bodies involving the corporate, financial and administrative management of what is a complex industry.

Describing his election last month as chairman of the 92-year-old SA Canegrowers as an honour, Talmage said he was committed to making every effort to strengthen the team within the member-organisation while allowing space for individuals to become leaders in their own right.

“When I played rugby, my position was at centre and there I learned from a very young age about decision making, timing, and distribution of the ball to those who had the speed, strength and skills to score the tries. Similarly, as chairman of SA Canegrowers, I want to be able to make those important strategic decisions that will allow those around me to use their specific skills to get the results we need. I don’t like the limelight, but I like getting into the dust and the heat to help my team to achieve success. Working as a member of a cohesive unit to achieve a goal, to get to the very core of an issue, and then to find a solution, is something I love to do,” he said.

Describing the sugar industry as both strategic and mature and with a high degree of complexity, Talmage said he was now applying every ounce of his energy and leadership skills to make sure it survived and prospered.

“It will require collaboration working on a strategy that is both focused and innovative,” he said.