An Australian sugar industry study on diversification has shown that growers and millers alike are waiting for opportunities to present themselves before they act. At the same time the sector agrees that ownership and operation of any new technologies or products are likely to remain within the industry itself, rather than attract outside investors.
In line with the dilemma facing South Africa’s sugar producers, a study into diversification opportunities by the Australian industry has revealed there are few short-term solutions or an appetite for strategic investment, despite a raft of bio-refining options from the crop.
David Rynne, director of Trade, Policy and Economics at the Australian Sugar Milling Council (ASMC).
In short, the study suggests a “market watch” approach – in the hope of improved trading conditions. At the same time the report encourages growers to keep an eye on technological advances able to improve on-farm cost efficiencies and higher yields per hectare.
“The (Australian) industry has, as a whole, investigated numerous opportunities in the past with very little actually being confirmed as viable, and no game changers identified,” the study concluded.
With the title Industry Priorities for Value Add and Diversification Opportunities in the (Australian) Sugar Industry, the study was undertaken by that country’s Lazuli Consulting to assist Sugar Research Australia to better understand industry views on value adding and product diversification.
It also aimed to develop a list of “agreed prioritised diversification opportunities that may require further research and development activity or market analysis” as a roadmap towards improved industry returns and sustainability.
The research was concluded in November 2018 and the final report was released earlier this year.
Obstacles and possibilities
The methodology used for the research included consultation with “key industry figures”, as well as 27 consultation sessions held with representatives from the cane grower association CANEGROWERS, milling companies and experts both within and outside the sector.
Director of Trade, Policy and Economics at the Australian Sugar Milling Council (ASMC) David Rynne said while the report demonstrated an array of possibilities to shore up the viability of the sugar industry, it also demonstrated just as many obstacles, with inconsistent and uncertain government policies topping the list.
“Our major competitors in Thailand and Brazil are currently adding significant value via electricity cogeneration and biofuel production, in no small part due to the fact that both countries benefit from supportive government policy frameworks and have well-articulated diversification strategies in place,” Rynne said.
Value add and diversification has been a goal for the Australian industry for decades with the following schematic showing the various known categories of opportunities and how they relate to the supply chain.
The “high level” options to improve sustainability included in the study were to:
- Increase yields on farms to reduce the long run marginal cost per unit of sugar sold.
- Reduce costs for growers, for example, lower irrigation costs through the use of solar power, reduced fertiliser and pesticide costs, reduced labour costs by using autonomous vehicles and other new data-driven technologies.
- Reduce in-system losses such as harvest losses of cane juice, improved mill process yields, selectively harvesting the highest CCS – the basis of payment in the Australian sugarcane industry, which rather than a direct measure of sucrose content is an estimate of total sugar (%) (Brix) adjusted for purity (Pol) and stalk fibre content.
- Increase economies of scale for growers.
- Increase asset utilisation – examples include 24/7 harvesting, supplementary crops to extend mill operation into the non-crush and re-use of farming/harvest/transport assets for non-sugar crops, and finally;
- To find value adds and diversification.
In the study, both growers and millers agreed that reducing harvest, transport and milling losses could be done almost immediately. However, the limited budget available to optimise the existing value chain saw others saying bigger gains could be made in new revenue streams such as cogeneration, ethanol and other new products.
There was also a strong call for both millers and growers to work together, with consensus that it would be premature to revisit the cane payment formula until opportunities became a reality.
However, unanswered questions included:
- What happens if there is a move to more fibre, such as energy cane?
- What happens if a third party establishes a biorefinery at (a) mill?
While the study gives South African growers and millers a window into the difficulties facing their peers Down Under, there are some unique challenges facing the domestic industry, which include the Health Promotions Levy and the flood of cheap imports, particularly from neighbouring countries such as Eswatini (free of import tariff), and an inadequate deep sea import tariff, which has resulted in product dumping, particularly in 2018.
However, what both industries face is the lowest world sugar price in a decade and a glut on the world market that could see below-production-cost prices at least until 2021 or 2022.
Also, the current worldwide trend against sugar consumption for health reasons against the desire by consumers for the same taste, but with lower calories, is a shared challenge.
At the start of the Australian study it was assumed that certain diversification strategies and value add products and chemicals would be chosen as priorities for industry focus. Instead, what emerged was a request for a “market watch” service based on the premise that the main barrier to value add and diversification was “greater certainty on the market, prices and volume demand”.
And while enhanced cogeneration was cited as an option for diversification, regulatory uncertainty and a preference for solar power by the Australian Government was listed as a “market risk”.
High ethanol export market
In the case of ethanol production, a large export market was cited as a plus, however, the cost of shipping the product was high, and contracts were usually only on a short-term basis due to growing competition in the market.
Diverting cane juice from the sugar production processes to ethanol production processes, the participants said, had the potential to adversely affect sugar production costs.
Densified biomass made from cane tops and trash was viewed as a possible income earner because the Australian steel industry, for example, was “potentially” interested in using renewable alternatives to coal.
Participants in the study suggested biomass could be made available using energy cane, sweet sorghum or other crops. “Also, potentially of interest could be blends of sugarcane-derived product with other crops, e.g. wood.”
And despite the fact that speciality chemicals produced for sugar required “deep pockets”, this aspect of diversification was “overwhelmingly” supported in preference of pursuing the production of chemicals from biomass.
The production of rum was given the thumbs up by the Australians as the study showed 3 076 million litres of distilled spirits – 50% ethanol based – was bottled in the United States alone in 2017, with some 160 million litres imported. Brazil was believed to dedicate at least 36 million tons of cane a year to the production of rum from molasses and cane juice, making about 1 500 million litres of the spirit per year.
And despite the cane payment system cited as a “potential future hurdle”, growing high fibre cane was raised by a “few parties” as a possible diversification resolution.
Deep pockets needed for commercialisation
Of particular interest was the “surprisingly” low number of requests for Sugar Research Australia to investigate new products, as participants in the study said there was already “a lot” of research happening domestically, and globally, hundreds of companies were trying to commercialise their intellectual property. It could take many years, and deep pockets, to commercialise any single product without any guarantee of success.
“Many technologies are effectively stuck in the laboratory. They achieve good technical results at that scale but fail to make it to a pilot scale. Buyers and financiers typically require at least one commercial scale reference plant before buying or investing in a technology, and many of the technologies already at commercial scale have failed to work commercially; the yields are too low,” the participants said.
In short, Australia’s sugar industry is adopting a watch and wait attitude to diversification. And on whether or not they want outside investment or ownership of technology or production shifts, they were clear any investment would most likely be owned and developed by the industry itself.
About Australian Sugar Industry
Australia has 377 000ha under cane and its 24 sugar mills produce around 4.4mt raw sugar per year, of which 85% is exported. More than 487 megawatts of cogenerated electricity is used to power mill operations and an equivalent amount is exported to the national grid (enough to power 70,000 homes). The Queensland industry uses 4 000km of rail and 250 diesel-hydraulic locomotives to transport cane from the fields to the mills. Other mills, including in the New South Wales region, use trucks to haul cane. The country has six sugar storage and export terminals at ports along the Queensland coast.
In 2017 Australia’s growers averaged around 88.4 tons-a-ha or 33.34 mt cane, and more than 90% mill revenue was derived from sales of raw sugar.
Sugar mills produce some molasses sold for animal feed or for export, and one mill produces a small volume of bioethanol.
In comparison, South Africa has 361 210ha under cane, with 90% of the crop transported from field to mill using road transport, and the energy produced is used only by the 14 individual mills.
Over the same period, South African growers produced 68.99 tons-a-ha or 17.38mt and almost 2 million tons gross of white and brown sugar, of which 40% was exported through the single terminal at the Durban port. The country’s millers produced 784 627 tons of molasses sold on to the domestic market, with a limited amount of ethanol produced from molasses and about 5% used for yeast production.
A household name in the sugar industry, sugarequip has a new face at its helm who says the opportunities offered in the South African sugar industry in the years ahead are an innovator’s dream.
A mechanical engineer with heaps of experience on sugar milling development projects, William Spaull has now set up new premises for sugarequip in the Cornubia Industrial Park, which is not only set within the heartland of KwaZulu-Natal’s sugar industry, but within easy distance of both the King Shaka International Airport and the Durban port for export and import purposes.
Durban-born and educated at Durban High School, Spaull completed his engineering degree at the University of KwaZulu Natal before working as a junior project manager at sugarequip.
“After that I worked for Bosch Projects for nine years where I gained invaluable experience by working on two massive expansion projects for Illovo Sugar Africa. I then started my own consulting services company and became part of the team that carried out the Tongaat Hulett Xinavane mill expansion in Mozambique. When those ended I decided to visit Bryan Bailey, who was the managing director at sugarequip at the time.
sugarequip’s William Spaull spells out his vision for the 52-year-old company now based at the Cornubia industrial park
“Bryan was reaching retirement and I knew he was beginning to scale back the business,” Spaull said.
sugarequip was started in 1967 by Bill Bailey and Michael Walsh originally as Cual Engineering. In 1983, the two split the electrical and mechanical aspects of the business with the Bailey family taking over what was to become sugarequip.
As its “bread and butter” the company sells a range of spares and processing equipment, engineering and design is done in-house and most of the manufacturing and fabrication projects are contracted out to key fabrication partners.
Spaull said he felt as though he had a 52-year-old start-up business. “I am fortunate that I can start out with a passionate and dedicated team and a well-known and established business that has an excellent reputation in the industry,” he said.
And the current crisis in the sugar industry, the thirty-something says, is filled with opportunities.
“My aim is to have sugarequip at the forefront of the innovation and technology development which I believe is already underway as the industry looks to diversify.
“I have this personality that is obsessed with finding better ways of doing things and working in this industry allows me to do this every day. I am redefining why the company exists, how we can keep on making sure the sugar factories run smoothly and how we can help to make this industry more sustainable through diversification,” he said.
A knack for numbers and a love for farming have set Mfundo Msimango on a path to success. At only 32 years old, he has increased his farmed land more than six times, and he’s not done yet!
Firing off numbers from the top of his head, Msimango understands the figures that result in success and those that will bring failure. “I work with spreadsheets for everything and so I can accurately predict my tonnage, RV and consequently my income, based on the inputs I apply. I know that if one of the inputs goes up or the RV goes down, it has a big impact on my bottom line so everything needs to be managed carefully,” he explained.
He farms on 68 hectares of owned and leased land in the Tonga area of Mpumalanga, just south of Komatipoort. Expanding from the initial 10 hectares he inherited from his father has taken strict financial management.
“I try to buy inputs like fertiliser in bulk and put my order in when the price is low so that price volatility does not affect me too much. It is also important to know exactly what you spend on inputs, how much your debt repayments are and how much is left to put towards expansion plans. I run the farm like a corporate business and there is no room for error. I don’t spend more than I need to and I reduce costs as far as possible.”
Taking the leap
Considering Msimango’s love for numbers and attention to detail, it is not surprising that he holds a diploma in quantity surveying. Although he grew up on a sugar farm, he admitted that he never paid much attention to the ins and outs of growing cane. His interest was rather on the engineering side, but since no agricultural engineering degrees were offered nearby, he opted for quantity surveying instead.
When his father died and left him the 10 hectares of sugar, he farmed remotely from Gauteng, where he was working full time. “At some stage a company called AgriWiz visited the farm to show us how to farm sugar. I found it fascinating and it sparked an idea to farm full time,” he said.
When the time came for expansion, Msimango worked through the Akwandze Agricultural Finance programme to borrow the money he needed. “It is a great programme to work with because they manage the cane proceeds, reducing the debts and putting money aside to buy inputs for the next season.
“I also make sure I don’t have too much debt, especially since I am growing the business. The farms need to be sustainable and not over capitalised.”
Msimango said growing the sugar cane business had not been easy and he would be far less successful if he did not have dedicated loans officers to assist him in expanding. “While I was still working in Gauteng I would have to drive down every time I needed to fill in another form for a loan. If I didn’t have a decent loans officer I wouldn’t have got very far. There is a board that decides if you will get the loan or not so you need someone who is dedicated, understands your farm and your vision and goes the extra mile to make sure your case is heard. People who can see potential and steer you in the right direction are important.
“But once you have the money, it is all in your hands and you have to make it work. When I started expanding I pushed so hard that many an employee left after three days. We wouldn’t go home until the field was planted and irrigated.”
Today Msimango’s three permanent employees and 175 seasonal workers see him as an employer of choice, as he has a strict policy of paying his staff on time and fairly. “Managing people correctly is important. We all work in a team, one field at a time. I don’t split the workforce between different fields so we all take responsibility for getting the job done.”
Msimango started farming full time when the drought had just stared, and cut his teeth during some of the most difficult years the industry has seen. “I couldn’t have picked a worse time. The first ratoons I planted never germinated so I had to redesign the whole irrigation system and replant.
“But if I have a mountain to face, I don’t run, I start climbing. Entrepreneurship and hard work run in our family and I’ve always told myself that I’ve got nothing to lose but everything to gain from pushing harder.”
The drought offered further motivation in that the RV price skyrocketed, which saw Msimango’s figures on his spreadsheet jump. “That motivated me to work even harder to get a better RV.”
He averages a yield of 105 tons per hectare with 13,5-14 RV.
He said seeing the profits increase when inputs are tightly controlled has spurred him on to farm more efficiently. “If the weeding costs go beyond a certain number, for example, I start to lose money. Then I need to look at why the costs went up: did I mismanage my staff? Or were the inputs not used properly? The numbers never lie!”
Msimango’s aim for the future is to add macadamia nuts to his farming portfolio, to mitigate the risks within the sugar cane industry. “The reason I initially wanted to start farming was to grow macadamias. But getting loans for land and inputs was substantial. So I decided to build up the sugar business and then eventually expand into macadamias, while still growing the sugar component. So for now I will continue to sleep, eat and drink sugar cane!”
Women sugarcane farmers with a lifetime of experience in the sector have made it to the top echelons of the SA Canegrowers’ leadership ladder after the elections of the association’s new board at its annual general meeting last month.
Dipuo Ntuli, a smallscale grower from northern Zululand, was elected for a second term as vice chair, while Rejoice Ncwane and Kiki Mzoneli, who farm near Sezela and Groutville respectively, have taken up their seats on the board for the very first time.
Congratulating the women on their appointments, outgoing chairman of the association Graeme Stainbank said not only was it a historic and exciting moment for the 92-year-old member-body, but the women were all experienced sugarcane growers who would bring a wealth of knowledge and vision to the leadership structures.
All three women said not only were they honoured to have been elected by the SA Canegrowers members, but they were there to serve the sugar industry and their communities of mainly smallscale growers.
New chairman Rex Talmage said the appointments were “extremely exciting” and he was looking forward to working with them.
“One of the key attributes of a board is having true diversity of perspective, experience and expertise that feed into a more holistic understanding and approach, which then allows for better decision-making.”
He said of paramount importance – notwithstanding the valued diversity of the board from a cultural, gender, experience, areas of expertise or scale of operation basis – was that everybody who was elected subscribed to a common set of values: democratic, inclusive, transparent, integrous, accountable, transformative, non-racial and high governance throughout the organisation.
“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.
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.