While commercialised sugarcane production in the South African Development Community countries navigates a way through growing uncertainty and change brought about by both domestic and international pressures, the importance of gender relations in the production of the crop must take centre stage if food security and the alleviation of poverty are to become a reality in the region, say researchers.

In their studies, the latest of which was released in The Journal of Peasant Studies, academics Emmanuelle Sulle and Dr Helen Dancer investigate the role of sugar commercialisation, its impact on the relationships between the state, corporate capital and rural people in the Kilombero Valley, Tanzania, between 2013 and 2016, and whether or not the industrialisation of the sector has increased gender differentiation.

Dr Helen Dancer.

Dr Helen Dancer.

The question is particularly relevant when recent internationally comparable data indicates that women comprise an average of 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries.

“This ratio of labour increases to almost 50% in sub-Saharan Africa, which is a higher proportion than anywhere else in the world,” the study says.

The research was conducted in the vicinity of Tanzania’s largest sugar producer, the Kilombero Sugar Company Ltd, which is a part of Illovo Sugar Africa, the continent’s largest cane sugar producer.

“As a whole, the paper(s) seek to draw lessons and models for good practice concerning gender equity. (They) consider what policy-makers might do to address the current challenges and gender imbalances within commercial agriculture, and their implication for the wider political economy,” the study says.

Sugarcane production is the most significant source of income for the majority of families in the villages studied, with men being twice as likely as women to hold the land on an individual basis.

After the national food crisis in 2008, the Tanzanian government turned its focus to commercialisation in the agriculture sector, particularly the large-scale production of rice and sugar, to ensure food security.

As a result, the country’s agriculture policies now prioritise large-scale sugarcane production using a model that combines large estates with processing mills and independent smallholder farmers supplying their cane to the factory under pre-negotiated agreements.

The government, the study says, considers the model, with “block” farming, as an effective way to balance trade-offs between large-scale agribusiness investors such as Illovo Sugar Africa, the rural growers and its national policy.

In line with recommendations on Gender Diversity, ten women were recently appointed as Extension Officers to the Kilombero grower department. They were all trained on grower-development topics, including land rights, gender, community engagement and facilitation.

In line with recommendations on Gender Diversity, ten women were recently appointed as Extension Officers to the Kilombero grower department. They were all trained on grower-development topics, including land rights, gender, community engagement and facilitation.

Small-holder producers

At Kilombero last year, sugarcane production from independent growers amounted to 49% of total cane supply to the mills. This production is dominated by small-holder producers farming on less than 20ha of land, comprising 82% of all cane from growers, all of whom are members of one of 19 local cooperatives in the valley. A suite of farming models is used by growers, including block farming, which entails the consolidation of land holdings into one unit, as well as synchronised farming, which both aim to maximise economies of scale.  However, by comparison, these types of farming models are far less prevalent – comprising only 3% of the grower component of cane supply – than individual cultivation of cane by families and individuals on their own land.

The research findings make it clear that an empathetic understanding of the historical context of land ownership in the country, the complexity of community dynamics and in particular, the role of women in agriculture, is a fundamental requirement if the new agrarian policy is indeed going to deliver on the Tanzanian government’s aims as intended.

One of the significant trends highlighted in the research was the increase in the number of women registered as smallholder growers since 1995, when sugarcane production was privatised.

The researchers estimate that at least 30% of those registered are women, compared with hardly any women registered as smallholder farmers in their own right 24 years ago.

This was particularly evident in places where land was historically more equally distributed to villagers of both sexes during the implementation of the government’s socialist system of village cooperatives, or ujamaa, based on equality of opportunity and self-help, in the 1960s.

This is notwithstanding the reported failings of ujamaa as a national economic policy.

Another reason for the more recent increase in woman ownership is because it is believed it has become more commonplace for land to be registered with the Tanzanian Sugar Board in a woman’s name upon the death of her husband.

Also, couples are apparently registering as members of different associations to make sure their cane crop is harvested.

Yet, there is still significant gender differentiation in land tenure, with men twice as likely as women to acquire land in their sole name in the study villages, the research says.

Further hurdles thrown in the way of women progressing up the professional ladder in the sugar production sector in the study include:

  • The casualisation of the work force
  • Fewer women are encouraged to take up the sciences as academic subjects at school and university
  • Dependence by the sector on migrant labour
  • Smallholder farmers generally earn more from their land than as wage labourers on plantations
  • Fewer women than men hold leadership positions in canegrower associations, as the criteria for the positions are based on total land ownership
  • Commodity production shifts income from cash crops, which are usually grown and sold by women in the local markets

Employment by the Kilombero Sugar Company was also found to favour men, at 36% of the total permanent workforce versus 27% of women permanently employed.

Women are also more likely than men to be hired as low-paid field workers or as cleaners, guards, messengers, nurses or typists.

In skilled and managerial work, 2013 company statistics showed men outnumbered women by a ratio of 11:1.

Emma Mwandenga participates in the “Train the Trainer” course presented by the Illovo Academy to all extension officers at Kilombero. Emma has a BSc in Agriculture Engineering, experience in farm mechanisation, irrigation and agronomic issues.

Emma Mwandenga participates in the “Train the Trainer” course presented by the Illovo Academy to all extension officers at Kilombero. Emma has a BSc in Agriculture Engineering, experience in farm mechanisation, irrigation and agronomic issues.

Findings welcomed

In response to the study, Illovo Sugar Africa Group Head of Grower Agriculture Andrew Cochrane said he welcomed its comprehensive findings. He added that since the working paper’s release in 2016, it had helped inform the manner in which the group conducted its business across the region.

“We have followed closely the work of researchers because if we were not to include women in our operation in a meaningful way, we would be missing out on major potential for the business and the community. Gender diversity within our teams generates greater value and adds an extra lens on gender diversity inside our business. Women act as role models in any community and by including them, we know we are providing a sustainable future for the industry while at the same time allowing us the opportunity to influence patriarchal beliefs and behaviours,” he said.

And while there was still much work to be done, he said the group had made great progress in developing strategic partnerships with civil society organisations at both domestic and international fronts, so as to draw from their expertise and experience.

“In Mozambique for example, LIMA – a rural development NGO – conducted gender assessment training and shaped an inclusion strategy.  This was used to influence grower representative structures to include more gender diversity and also led to the strategy being implemented in Tanzania to increase gender diversity in the extension team.”

Another important decision by the group was the training and employment of 10 female extension officers at the Tanzania operation.

“Their role is to train our growers in line with the World Bank’s elements of good practice to provide support in a more gender sensitive way,” Cochrane said.

In a blog released on International Women’s Day 2019, Group Managing Director of Illovo Sugar Africa Gavin Dalgleish emphasised the group’s commitment to the progression of women across its regional operations.

“In rural communities, growers who are women are particularly vulnerable, holding less power due to societal views and gender bias,” he said. “Across each of our countries of operation…we are empowering them. We are doing this through working together on projects and initiatives to provide support, training, and expertise, to enable women to thrive in both the workplace and community.

“We believe it’s important to co-exist with a community that benefits from us being there.”


Kilombero Sugar Company Ltd – a background

Sugarcane production started in the Kilombero Valley in the early 1920s with small jaggeries.

Jaggeries used a traditional non-centrifugal method to extract sugar from concentrated cane juice without the separation of the molasses and crystals, resulting in a golden or dark brown natural cane sugar. Jaggery can be made from date or palm sap and from sugarcane.

Large-scale commercial production started in about the 1960s, when the then Kilombero Sugar Company, with funding from the International Finance Corporation, the Commonwealth Development Corporation, Standard Bank and two Dutch financial organisations, established its first factory in the Msolwa region.

Emmanuel Sulle

Emmanuel Sulle

From the start the company ran its estate with smallholder farmers supplying their cane to the factories.

In 1967 the operation was nationalised after the implementation of the Arusha Declaration, which saw the government retaking management of industries with high economic value for the nation.

The nationalised company was placed under the management of the National Food Corporation and subsequently the Sugar Development Corporation, which took charge in 1974.

In 1976, the company built a second factory to increase crushing capacity, which in turn required a demand in supply from both the company’s estates and the surrounding smallholder farmers.

Throughout its time under the control of the government, extensions services, cane cutting, and transportation of the smallholders’ sugarcane, was subsidised.

During global structural adjustment programmes in the late 1980s, a combination of cuts to state agricultural subsidies, stiff competition in the sugar business and worker demand for better pay, resulted in production and profit falling to the lowest in the company’s history. The supply from the smallholder growers also fell to its lowest during the period under state control, from about 42% of the mill’s supply to as little as 15%.

Production on the smallholder plots did not pick up until the privatisation of the company in 1998 to the South African company Illovo Sugar Limited (as it was known then).

In 2006, Associated British Foods plc (ABF) acquired a 51% stake in Illovo and in June 2016, purchased the remaining 49% of shares.  As a consequence of this transaction, the company delisted from the JSE and changed its name to Illovo Sugar Africa (Pty) Ltd.

Today, Illovo’s share in Kilombero Sugar Company Limited remains at 55%, with 25% of the shares owned by the government of Tanzania and 20% held by ED&F Man, a London-based commodities group.

Kilombero is in the Morogoro region in the centre/south of the country. It comprises two adjacent agricultural estates and sugar factories, Msolwa and Ruembe, situated on either side of the Great Ruaha River, linked by a low-level bridge.

The operations are centred in the Kilombero Valley region of Tanzania, at Kidatu, where the company operates two mills and leases 12,000 hectares of land from the Tanzanian government, 9,562 hectares of which is planted to cane.

The company has made significant investments in the business over the past 20 years, totalling around R2.5 billion and involving various cane and sugar production expansions and the commissioning of a state-of-the-art distillery supplying 12 million litres of high quality alcohol to the local beverage industry.  Since its acquisition by Illovo, sugar production capacity has increased from approximately 20 000 tons to an annual average of 130 000 tons today.

The company produces direct consumption brown sugar under the ‘Bwana Sukari’ brand name, which is marketed and distributed by the company. Kilombero is one of four sugar producers in Tanzania, which, at current production levels of just more than 300 000 tons of sugar, is a net importer of sugar.  Currently, and in line with the government’s strategy to become self-sufficient in sugar production, Kilombero is investigating a proposed expansion project which, through increased sugarcane production from local, independent growers, is aimed at doubling the company’s current sugar output.

According to an independent, external socio-economic impact report in the 2016/17 financial year, Kilombero’s total economic impact – including direct, indirect and induced impacts – was estimated at R2.3 billion.

This includes R628 million in direct impacts (gross value added), and the remainder through multiplier effects within the supply chain and wider economy.  The company’s total direct tax payments in 2016/17 amounted to R93 million, while indirect taxes totalling R236 million were collected on behalf of the government. Kilombero also made payments of R1,045 million to Tanzanian suppliers, paid R175 million in salaries, wages and benefits to employees, and made capital investments of R59 million in the same period.

(Source: Emmanuelle and Sulle; Illovo Sugar Africa)

Tanzania vs South Africa – models of land ownership

In Tanzania there are three types of land ownership models:

  • Reserve land (conservation land);
  • General (similar to freehold but all land is state-owned on 99-year leases i.e. Kilombero pays an annual fee for the land it leases);
  • Village land (administered by the village council who can give CCROs (Certificate of Customary Rights Occupation) to individuals. This is currently being implemented by the Tanzanian government);
  • Overriding factor is that the state owns all land.

Land ownership model in South Africa:

  • State land (any land held by Department of Land Affairs or Department of Public Works – the state can also hold title);
  • Freehold land (privately-owned land with title) and,
  • Communal land (state-owned but held in trust by communal authorities, e.g. tribal land – all former Tribal Trust land);
  • The Ingonyama Trust (which encompasses all former KZN tribal trust land) has been transferred from state-owned to Trust land. King Zwelithini is the sole trustee of the Ingonyama Trust.