As Shukela Plus delves into the innovation and diversification options available to South Africa’s sugar industry, Tongaat Hulett’s Managing Director: Sugar Operations, Simon Harvey responds to questions on the development of the Sugar Industry Masterplan, how it will contribute to the survival of the sector, albeit in a different and more innovative guise, and where the group sees itself placed in this new future.
1. How has Tongaat Hulett contributed to the development of the sugar industry Masterplan?
The Tongaat Hulett executive team was part of the industry think-tank that helped to craft the Master Plan. As part of its participation, the team attended the sugar industry meetings, consultations and workshops that were facilitated by Harald Harvey, special advisor to the Trade and Industry minister.
2. What are the key points in the Masterplan which you believe are now key for the future sustainability of the sector?
There are a number of important aspects that will help to stabilise the industry by creating new job opportunities and establishing appropriate platforms for a diversified sugarcane-based value chain.
The Master Plan contains seven commitments, all of which are critical for the sustainability of the sector. If they are to succeed, the commitments require the participation of all stakeholders, both upstream and downstream.
The commitments involve restoring the local market and offtake commitments; keeping sugar producer prices in line with inflation and providing price certainty to retailers; and providing appropriate trade protection as well as ensuring that jobs are protected and preserved during the industry transition and restructuring phase. Further commitments are ensuring that small-scale growers are supported and retained; ensuring ownership and participation in the sugarcane value chain of black farmers, women, young people and disabled is significantly advanced; and developing a restructuring plan that focuses on improving efficiencies and restoring profitability.
3. In your opinion how should the production of South Africa’s sugar crop be divided between refined sugar for domestic use, export, and then percentage diverse production spread across biofuels, energy, alcohols, plastics and other fibre-rich products?
The sugar industry’s primary focus remains the local market, which is a priority. In an ideal scenario the bulk of our production of sugar should be consumed locally or within the Southern African Customs Union. This includes the BLNE countries – namely Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Eswatini.
The current mix of local to export sugar is around 50/50, so half of all production is exported at a market price that is below the cost of production. Ideally excess export sugar could be used for the production of ethanol, while molasses, another by-product of cane, could be used to produce both potable alcohol and fuel grade ethanol.
In addition, the industry is more than capable of supplying a significant portion of the country’s electricity demands through co-generation using renewable fuels like bagasse, which is a by-product of sugarcane. Bioplastics and the like become a natural offshoot of ethanol production and will feed into the diversification plans once ethanol blending has been mandated and ethanol plants are built.
Considering the needs created by COVID-19 for hygiene products, there may also be opportunities for sugar producers, including Tongaat Hulett, to diversify into potable alcohol for use in hand sanitisers and other medicinal purposes on the continent. This could play a significant role in the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
4. What investment would be required from the millers to make this scenario a reality?
There would be a need for significant investment in new technology for diversification, such as an alcohol distillery plant, and bioplastics and co-generation power facilities at higher scale than currently installed at mills, among other possible opportunities.
5. And, are you able to detail the new mill ownership/shareholder plan as mooted by Tongaat Hulett earlier this year and how do you see this exciting development adding to the diversification of production and products?
Tongaat Hulett has identified an opportunity to advance the participation of growers in the milling and refining sector. The company recently launched Millco, a transformational initiative that seeks to create one well structured, sustainable, diversified and competitive sugar business. Growers, both small scale and commercial, have been invited to participate in this venture. We have also invited private equity partners to participate, and conversations are under way.
Millco has been established to consider the long-term future of sugarcane. Opportunities within the green economy (bioplastics; biodegradable plastics and packaging and ethanol) are being investigated.
6. What stake then would Tongaat Hulett have in the future in the actual mills and the milling process?
At this stage, Tongaat Hulett aims to have between a 51% and 55% stake in Millco.
7. And how does that inform your participation in the sugar industry Masterplan?
The Master Plan is a social compact that commits all parties to a radically different future, and one of its seven action commitments is transformation. Millco was designed with this in mind and intended to be the first truly transformative deal in the sugar industry involving one of the big three millers. It offers a unique opportunity to be part of the full value chain rather than a carve-out of a small set of opportunities. This provides a platform for success and for growth.
The intent of the Master Plan is to create an enabling environment. Through Millco, Tongaat Hulett and its partners will explore opportunities for the development of a diverse range of downstream value streams from sugarcane.
The Master Plan has also emphasised the importance of the small-scale growers to the growth and sustainability of the sugar industry, and they are key in the Millco conversation.
8. What products, other than refined sugar, is Tongaat Hulett already producing?
Tongaat is currently producing animal feeds through its Voermol Feeds plant as well as artificial sweeteners through the Equisweet brand and related products, and liquid sugars as well as fructose at the Huletts Refinery in Rossburgh. In Zimbabwe we also produce ethanol at our Triangle operations, as well as cogenerate electricity in a number of our plants.
9. How do you see these products being upscaled to become more central to the refining process and the bottom line of the company?
This will depend on the uptake of artificial sweeteners as the health promotion levy takes root in the country. Animal feeds are not dependent on the shift in sugar supply and demand dynamics.
10. In short, how do you see the sugarcane processing sector adding to the country’s green economy?
There is significant opportunity for the sector to create employment opportunities and new income streams while also reducing the carbon footprint of the country through renewable energy (electricity), which may also assist with reducing load-shedding. The sector could help reduce fuel costs with a locally produced alcohol blend for addition into petroleum fuel as well as supporting with bio-degradable packaging and food supply products.
11. How do you see this in relation to mitigating job losses and perhaps even creating more jobs in a far cleaner and more investment-friendly industry?
It is clear that the green economy has the potential to stimulate growth and create employment. While this space is still being explored, the technologies are already available and what is required is a conducive regulatory environment as well as investment, but this will take time
12. What investment will be required to get South Africa’s sugar mills ready for this new era of production?
We are still exploring the investment required, as it is highly dependent on the scale and regulatory framework for product demand.
13. Over what period of time?
We estimate the time scale to be two to five years, depending on buy-in and project phasing.
14. What is the industry going to need from the government and even from its own coffers/resources to get to the ideal as reflected in the Masterplan?
Government is one of the important stakeholders within the Master Plan and has been highly supportive during the planning phase of the plan, particularly in its role in helping to drive the commitments. The main role of government will be to create an enabling policy environment as well as to provide leadership and guidance to ensure the achievement of Vision 2030. Government will also play an oversight role to ensure none of the competition laws is undermined during the implementation of the Master Plan, and that all parties drive the transformation agenda and ensure the creation of an inclusive economy
15. This is an exciting time in South Africa’s sugar industry, there is a feeling that the worst is behind us – and it has been and still is tough for sure – but how and where do you see growth, right-sizing and alignment with a more innovative and modern sugar sector?
Tongaat is currently implementing a comprehensive turnaround strategy, and good progress is being made. While the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, Tongaat’s executive team is focused on finding sustainable solutions. We are clear that innovation is a key element of our future growth.
16. Do you see a situation where growers will be producing more fibre-rich cane varieties, with the fibre then being harvested on-farm and used to produce electricity that is then fed on to the national grid?
In our ongoing discussions with growers, it is clear they are keen to explore other revenue streams, but this will depend on the take-up of electricity generated from sugarcane. We believe that with the right policy environment, notably government support in the conversation around green electricity, growers should be open to opting for fibre-rich cane varieties
17. How viable would it be then for the grower to transport only the cane stalks to the mill for the refining process?
This is currently the case and the part of the case for change.
18. What about the future of gasification and anaerobic digestion technologies?
We believe this could be successfully done for factory effluent digestion processes, although not for sugar factories with the abundance of fibre for energy generation.
19. What changes will have to be made in the current sugar industry legislation to free up more production options for both growers and millers, and do you support these changes?
The latest legislation is awaiting gazetting but has unfortunately been delayed due to the onset of COVID-19. The changes effectively streamline decision-making in the industry and reduce costs. We support these changes and are engaging on additional changes where SASA evolves into a more effective decision-making body that reduces inefficiency in the industry. We believe a case can be made that South African sugar production is inefficient in how the industry is currently set up.
The changes that will come into effect will also recognise SAFDA as an official grower body. This is testament to the evolution of the sugar industry with regards to transformation. We are very supportive of transformation funds being directed at small-scale growers and ensuring that the focus areas reach grassroots level.
20. And finally, do you support the reduction of the size of the industry, and grower funding for the establishment of alternative crops such as cotton, macadamias, avocados and stevia for example?
It’s not clear to us that the reduction of the size of the industry will automatically yield the desired results as there are other factors affecting its sustainability.
We absolutely support the approach taken by the Master Plan that encourages growers to explore other crops e.g. macadamias. As outlined in the plan, the industry has been on a declining trend for some years now and any further decline will have long term effects on growers, particularly small-scale growers. As such, it is trying, through various partners, to create an inclusive rural economy that embraces the dynamics of the future – without excluding others or shrinking the size of the industry – provided all players are open to embrace innovation and diversify
21. And where do you see Tongaat Hulett placed in this new future?
Tongaat Hulett has implemented three transformational initiatives, namely Farmco, Millco and Propco, which highlight the company’s commitment to transformation and to the inclusive economy.
The company continues to explore business opportunities within the green economy. With the support of government and all other industry players, the company sees itself continuing to be the dominant player not only in the production of sugar but also in a number of other sectors.
Profit from South Africa’s booming macadamia industry offers massive benefits for rural areas and communities as well as a more than viable alternative for the country’s embattled sugar growers.
As one of the world’s most lucrative crops, macadamias are not only an economic boon for South Africa’s agriculture sector, but beyond the farm gate, the industry is providing benefits for communities in which the farms and processors operate, for example, creating work for many who possibly may not have found employment in these rural areas previously, and the space for much needed regional infrastructure development.
The importance of commercial farming in feeding the global population is undisputed. But the sector’s ability to bring prosperity to otherwise forgotten corners of the globe is often overlooked. Starting on the farm and going through the value chain, agriculture provides a lifeline of employment and socio-economic benefits to the regions in which it operates. With the added profitability of the macadamia industry, the scope for community development and corporate social investment is that much greater.
A prosperous alternative
The macadamia industry is particularly relevant to socio-economics due to its opportunity for scale. Climatically, macadamias do well in similar conditions to sugar and tobacco, and while these industries are experiencing lacklustre performance, macadamias offer farmers a robust, healthier – for the planet and people – alternative. With the ability of this industry to revive traditional sugar areas, rural prosperity could continue on an even greater trajectory.
Brazil, for instance, is faced with having to adapt from its predominant agricultural output, sugar. In 2018 sugar burning became prohibited in Sao Paulo state, an area that is responsible for 60% of Brazil’s sugar and ethanol production, following legislation set out in 2008. Farmers had 10 years to comply and other major sugar-growing regions in Brazil are following suit.
This presents untapped opportunity for the country to switch to macadamias since orchard plantings can take place in existing agricultural hubs rather than encroaching on the surrounding virgin land and forests.
Maria Teresa Camargo, president of Queen Nut, Brazil’s largest processor of macadamia nuts, says the cane-growing region in San Paolo alone has 5,1 million hectares planted to sugar.
“By comparison, only around 7 500 hectares are planted to macadamias in the whole country, 50% of which is in the San Paolo state. The current macro context of Brazil’s agricultural industry is serendipitous in its timing to growing the macadamia industry at large. This comes with unparalleled scope for socio and economic upliftment too,” she adds.
Some 65% of the available global macadamia supply is produced in Africa, resulting in significant economic and social benefits for South Africa, Kenya and Malawi. Africa is home to the lion’s share of the globe’s arable land and macadamia plantings remain on the rise in these regions. Other regions experiencing strong growth include Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Swaziland.
Allen Duncan, CEO of Green Farms Nut Company (GFNC), says as South Africa is the world’s leading producer of macadamia nuts, the industry provides the country with valuable foreign exchange currency through its domestic macadamia exports.
“This is significant for an emerging economy like ours as it encourages infrastructure and other investments. These are the building blocks for sustainable growth,” says Duncan.
The power held by the industry to promote the growth of small scale farmers was exponential, he adds.
“GFNC has partnered with initiatives that have an impact on more than 30 emerging farmers. The business also runs mentor workshops for new, small farmers into the market, offering other skills development opportunities. GFNC has also built a nursery school for the children of those who are part of the project.”
Andre Steenkamp, an economist with National Treasury, says a growing agricultural sector had a role to play in addressing challenges of unemployment and low growth, while countering rural poverty.
“Several features of agriculture make it important in the pursuit of inclusive, labour-intensive economic growth. Rural linkages, the ability to absorb less-skilled labour, large multipliers due to extensive links with the rest of the economy, and the importance for export-led growth make this a crucial sector to uplift the rural economy.”
Innovative joint ventures had boosted agricultural production and promoted agrarian transformation, he adds. “There are many examples of commercial farmers, farmers’ organisations, and other private sector institutions electing to drive agrarian transformation through innovative joint ventures. Even those who are critical of joint ventures as a panacea for agriculture and land reform in South Africa acknowledge that joint ventures can yield encouraging results for smallholders. These include increased production, access to services such as training and technical assistance, access to inputs and production credit, as well as access to formal markets – including compliance with standards. These aim to overcome the challenges faced by the sector.”
Maclands provides schooling for children of the workers.
Macadamia processors worldwide have been at the forefront of initiatives that support the communities in which they operate.
Queen Nut’s social programmes stretch far and wide, from basic human rights initiatives to those that encourage cultural growth and participation. These include the Athlete of the Future Project, which encourages low-income children and adolescents to develop an interest in sport. The Proerd (Programa Educacional de Resitência ás Drogas e á Violência) Project is a partnership with the military police, which is a drug abuse resistance and violence education programme. The Adolescent Apprentice Project revolves around career preparedness using life skills training and exposure, and the Apae Pilot Project is a professional kitchen aimed at teaching children and teens with special needs to make cake and salty pastries to help strengthen motor co-ordination.
The company also supports the Child Friendly Company Project, which acts against child labour and promotes vocational training and access to protected employment for adolescents. An annual Macadamia Festival is also held, a cultural extravaganza to promote tourism, while at the same time raising the profile of and opportunities in the macadamia sector.
Queen Nut has a strong focus on employees through rigorous safety training programmes and access to medical and gynaecological assistance for women, in particular. Study and career advancement opportunities are also provided. Queen Nut’s environmental awareness policy includes recycling, energy saving and driving water efficiencies.
On the African continent, Kenya has succeeded in negotiating and agreeing favourable trade agreements with key macadamia consumer markets and territories, setting a platform for the local industry to grow. The crop provides jobs to some 150 000 people and is the most lucrative crop after tea in the region.
The South African-based Maclands Estate, with orchards and processing plants in Kenya, Malawi and South Africa, provides employment for 5 213 people as a direct result of their operations in these sub-Saharan African countries.
Maclands Regional Director Chris Flowers says the company’s ethos is about enduring and sustainable participation in the industry.
“We understand intrinsically the business needs to exist in harmony with the community in which it operates, since it is the community which gives us the license to do business in these regions. And we demonstrate our partnership through best class initiatives such as building houses for staff, with running water and space to create vegetable gardens. Within the villages, children of employees have access to schooling and medical care and clinics are available to staff and their dependants until they reach the age of 18.”
The Maclands business, Flowers says, was rooted in creating a healthy agricultural environment supported by key infrastructure developments such as building dams, and in Malawi specifically, a project focusing on cutting down on the deforestation of indigenous bush, which has become a major environmental threat to the country.
Award-winning agricultural journalist Lindi Botha says as South African farmers neglect to inform the narrative on agricultural best practice in the country, the sector is at risk of continuing to attract uninformed criticism, resulting in bad press, as consumers and activists rightly push for more environmentally and socially empathetic production methodologies from the industry.
Water, bees, chemicals and land are just some of the fundamental components critical for the successful cultivation of food crops across the globe. And how each of these is used by farmers draws as many commentators and opinions as there are cultivation practices. What is glaringly absent, however, is farmers who are “selling” not only the importance of these four aspects of their operations, but how they are responding to the demand for more responsible or best practice farming while simultaneously producing enough food for an over-populated planet.
This omission or reticence allows space, then, for those outside the sector to drive the conversation on ethical agricultural activities, which if not properly informed, could very well threaten the continued profitable production of food in the country.
Most South African farmers are aware of and subscribe to the responsibility they hold as good stewards of both the land and its resources, if not only for crop yield performance, but for the continued prosperity of markets and for the livelihoods of so many who depend on agriculture for their daily bread.
In reality, unless farmers look after their land, adopt state-of-the art applications and technology to continuously improve the condition of their soils, manage water use optimally and keep an eye on input costs versus yields and returns, their businesses will quickly collapse.
Luxury products such as macadamia nuts, avocados and other high-end or niched foods are usually bought by informed and educated consumers who are predisposed to investigating the origins of the fare they buy in response to activist messaging linked to a demand for more ethical and responsible farming methodologies.
And it is here that South Africa’s farmers could do better in developing communication campaigns able to speak to a wide range of audiences so consumers can then balance their thinking.
The almond industry relies heavily on bees to pollinate the crop. But colony deaths have prompted consumers to turn away from almond milk.
Balancing the narrative
Environmentalists have called for the boycott of almonds due to the crop’s heavy water requirement, pesticide use, and most recently, the harmful effect the pesticides aimed at protecting the trees are having on bee populations. Avocado production has also come under fire as it is believed the crop’s exponential growth is contributing to water shortages in poor communities while funding crime syndicates in some countries.
At the heart of these controversies is a call by environmental activists to avoid these products at all costs.
A global outcry over dwindling bee populations has put farmers in the firing line over the chemicals used on crops and their effect on pollinators.
Consequently, almond milk drinkers, a promising new market for nut producers, are thinking twice as environmental activists push for boycotts.
With South Africa’s most lucrative crops – avocados and macadamias – both dependent on bees and health-conscious consumers alike, farmers would do well to learn their lesson from what has happened to the almond industry.
Almond milk has soared in popularity in recent years, not only because it is a tasty and viable alternative to lactose-containing conventional milk, but also due to the perceived benefits of shunning the dairy industry and the effect it has on the environment.
In a twist of fate, the very consumers who consciously turned to almond milk as a plant-friendly alternative have now spoken out in anger about the industry’s disregard for and impact on bee colonies.
California produces 80% of the world’s almonds and the orchards require more than two million bee colonies to pollinate the trees. Almond farmers mostly outsource this service to bee keepers. The latter have, however, reported their bees are dying in droves after being used on these almond farms. Monoculture, reduced natural forage and competition between honey bees and European bees were cited by experts as the reasons behind the declining health of the colonies and the massive die-off in the hives.
Reportedly, mite infestation is also a leading cause of bee deaths.
Pesticides, too, get their fair share of the blame, with farmers conceding that while this is part of the problem, the industry cannot do without crop protection chemicals.
Regardless, farmers now have to find alternative and acceptable ways to produce almonds. It is hoped a new initiative to label food, where applicable, as ‘bee friendly’, will guide shoppers in the same way as the Fairtrade and ‘organic’ labels have. The added spin-off would be the conversion of segments of the market who hadn’t previously considered the impact of their buying habits on bee health in their purchasing decisions.
The ‘Bee Better’ certification programme launched in the United States in 2017 not only points consumers in the right direction, but encourages farmers to plant additional food sources for bees in the form of cover crops and flowering hedges around orchards. Häagen-Dazs was the first food company to adopt the Bee Better label and is expected to roll out three almond ice cream flavours this year each carrying the required stamp of approval.
Walking the talk
In 2018 many British restaurants removed avocados from their menus, citing ethical issues around land and environment degradation. Claims of forests being destroyed to make way for lucrative avocado farming, and using up scarce water resources in the process, did not sit well with environmentally-conscious consumers.
Late last year the industry came under fire again after investigations in Mexico showed drug cartels were benefitting from the steep prices paid for avocados. Calls to boycott the fruit were again made, this time targeting avocados specifically from Mexico.
The conundrum remains, however, as boycotting the Mexican-grown fruit could put scores of farmers out of business, but on the other hand, how to stop drug cartels from blackmailing farmers into paying ‘duties’ for each exported kilogram?
In South Africa’s Lowveld region of Mpumalanga, the rapid expansion of macadamia orchards has created a perception the orchards are to blame for lower dam levels and reduced underground water.
While no research has been done to establish whether or not this is the case, farmers have not offered any counter argument regarding the importance of the industry to the regional economy. Furthermore, South African macadamia and avocado farmers are noted as being water-wise beyond that of competing countries.
The agricultural sector as a whole in South Africa has a plethora of good stories to tell, ranging from economic upliftment and transformation to progress in improving cultivation practices.
What is necessary, however, is a clear and consistent voice able to change the often negative perceptions about agriculture, to put food production in a factual framework to afford the public a balanced view of what is required to feed global populations.
The macadamia and avocado industries have no problem selling their produce – the world is hungry for them. But what the sector can’t seem to get on top of is its ability to argue its water, fertiliser, crop protection and land (including title deeds) requirements. And without a sound marketing plan to ensure government and consumers understand farmers’ needs, the industry is doomed to forever having to justify its existence and production methods.
Good news for consumers but not for farmers as South Africa’s avocado industry re-routes two million extra cartons of the fruit on to the domestic market as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic on export predictions.
For those who love smashed avocado on toast, or a touch of guacamole on their nachos, now is the time to pop down to the fruit and veg store as more than two million cartons of the fruit destined for export head for the domestic market.
This massive drop in export trade as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic might be good news for domestic consumers but not for farmers, who will have to re-assess their earnings: at least two thirds of the local crop is destined for overseas markets in a normal year.
Earlier this year – when the green “superfood” was out of season – consumers were paying upwards of R50 for two avocados, with prices for “ready to eat” fruit now at about R30 for two, giving an indication of the high demand despite annual harvesting already in full swing and the import excess taken up by domestic buyers.
But consumers could expect further downward price pressure as harvesting hits its peak.
CEO of the South African Subtropical Growers’ Association Derek Donkin said the original export predictions were set at 18 million cartons, but since the onset of the pandemic the industry had re-adjusted its forecast to R16 million cartons for the year.
“The closure of the hospitality sectors, restaurants and hotels has affected our exports as well as sales here in South Africa. While the excess will be taken up in the domestic market, that does, however, put pressures on the price,” Donkin said.
He added that the downward price pressure was affecting the green-skinned varieties, with some retailers selling a 4kg box of avocadoes on special recently for about R60.
The South African avocado harvesting season runs from February to November, with most of the fruit harvested between March and September.
Describing the trajectory of South Africa’s industry as a “long-term growth path”, particularly as it looks to further international trade with Japan, India and the United States, Donkin said due to growing global demand and to position the industry to produce the fruit year round, production was expanding in KwaZulu-Natal and in the Eastern and Western Cape.
Currently the United States is the biggest importer of avocados globally, importing about one million tons of avos in 2018.
Reportedly, South Africa’s industry plans to host inspectors from Japan once the lockdown has eased and international travel has returned to normal, with its sights also set on gaining access to the Chinese market in the future.
Donkin said South Africa’s industry had enjoyed good harvests and prices for at least five years, with growth expected to continue into the future as consumers worldwide are drawn to healthier eating habits.
South Africa’s avocado production has grown exponentially with about 2 000ha under orchards in 1970 to 19 000ha today. Year-on-year new plantings are estimated at about 1 500ha a year, with growers having to wait for anything up to two years for young trees from certified nurseries due to the demand, he said.
Prior to the ramping up of nursery production, Donkin said new growers could wait up to six years for young trees.
“It takes up to 18 months to grow an avocado tree from seed. When demand suddenly ramped up about five years ago there weren’t that many nurseries. But new nurseries have opened up and we are now in a good position, although the wait is still about two years.”
While accurate figures were not available of the diversification of sugarcane farmers to crops such as avocados, Donkin said there was growth in membership of the South African Avocado Growers’ Association from farmers in KwaZulu-Natal and in particular in the Ixopo area, where they were exiting the dairy industry in preference for avocado farming.
In 2018, South Africa’s avocado crop was estimated at 170 000 tons, of which about 86 000 tons were exported mainly to Europe and to the UK. The remainder of the crop was sold on to the domestic market, with about 10% processed to oil and purée.
The Hass avocado accounts for 80% of the total area planted, while the Fuerte, Pinkerton, Ryan, Edranol and Reed varieties make up the remaining 20%.
The Hass is harvested in Limpopo Province from February to May and in KwaZulu-Natal, from February to October. The other varieties are harvested mainly between March and September.
While archaeologists in Peru found domesticated avocado seeds buried with Incan mummies dating back as far as 750BC, South Africa’s first avocado trees were planted in the 1920s in the Durban area by Harry Ludman with seedlings from the West Indies.
Reportedly the fruit was of a poor quality and “attracted little commercial attention”.
In the 1930s citrus farmers in the northern reaches of the country started replacing their dying citrus trees – due to a greening disease – with avocado trees.
However, it was only in the mid-60s that farmers started getting organised by setting up an Avocado Growers’ Export Coordinating Committee, which changed to the Transvaal Avocado Growers’ Association in 1969. The organisation continued as such until August 1971when the South African Avocado Growers’ Association was formed.
The first research committee was established in 1976.
While some attribute the avo’s popularity with consumers to the rejuvenated popularity of the Banting or high-fat low carb diet promoted by South Africa’s Professor Tim Noakes, and the increasing research worldwide on the impact of sugar on health, the Central American Indian worshipped the fruit’s ability to increase vitality and general well-being as long ago as 500BC.
The South African Avocado Growers’ Association says it is believed these ancient civilisations not only revered the fruit for its nutritional value but also believed it to be an aphrodisiac, due to its suggestive shape. “The name avocado actually comes from the Aztec word ahuacatl, meaning testicle.”
Regardless, avocados have a unique nutritional profile as they contain lots of fibre and are rich in vitamins and minerals like B-vitamins, vitamin K, potassium, copper, vitamin E and vitamin C. They also contain very little sugar.
As South Africa’s cane farmers buckle under the pressure of the government’s Health Promotion Levy, record low world sugar prices and a flood of imports from Eswatini, SA Canegrowers Vice Chairman Dipuo Ntuli is calling for a longer view, saying scores of vulnerable rural communities and small-town economies in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga face collapse.
“We have to keep the sugar industry sustainable. We have to make sure it remains sustainable because historically and even today, sugarcane farming had and still has a very important legacy. For a rural family, growing sugarcane, even on just 2ha, can make the difference between surviving or not surviving,” Ntuli said.
As input costs have increased, coupled with the growing global anti-sugar lobby and the onset of the worst drought in living memory in 2016, the viability of sugarcane farming has come under pressure. When the South African government imposed its Health Promotion Levy in 2018 and in that same year thousands of tons of cheap imported sugar flooded into the country, the industry was effectively on its knees.
Two years since its introduction, the industry estimates the HPL has cost the sector R1.5 billion, with about 9 000 workers being made redundant.
The recent announcement of the closure of the Darnall sugar mill by the embattled Tongaat Hulett group is a case in point as reports estimate at least 400 people have lost their jobs. At least 200 small-scale growers who supplied their cane to the mill will have to absorb hugely increased transport costs as they send their crop to mills further afield, and neighbouring small towns, dependent on the sugar industry for their economic activity, are likely to feel more than just a pinch.
According to Ntuli, while commercial-scale growers are able to ride the storm to an extent, the hardest hit are those who not only depend on their sugarcane plots for extra income but have ambitions to grow their small-scale operations to commercial scale.
She said the number of small-scale growers had dropped from nearly 50 000 at the turn of the century to below 20 000 today.
Dipuo Ntuli, Vice Chairman SA Canegrowers, works in her sugarcane fields on her farm in the district of uMfolozi. She says she is now committed to supporting small-scale growers, most of whom are women.
“That is my vision for the sugar industry. To help all those small-scale growers to stand on their own two feet. To help them to become commercial farmers through partnerships and mentorships with our existing commercial growers. The sugar industry has a proud history of transformation. It has not paid lip service to this. And you know, a large percentage of the small-scale growers comprises women. Growing sugarcane has promoted women in our communities.”
Ntuli, who says she is a proud member of the African National Congress, serves on the political party’s regional executive committee where she heads up the portfolio committee for social development, and has served as a ward councillor for KwaHlabisa in the uMfolozi district.
She was elected as best farmer in the uMfolozi region in 2003 and in her hometown of Mtubatuba, is well known for her community work, particularly among women.
As a leader in the sugar industry and in her area, Ntuli says it is time for the voices of those in rural communities to be heard by the government.
“We must not destroy what we already have because our economy depends on us to be responsible. We must support agriculture, particularly the sugar industry. Supporting our commercial growers to remain sustainable is also an imperative because they create employment for thousands of people, and they are our partners and our mentors,” she said.
SA Canegrowers Commercial Executive Thomas Funke said while the sugar industry Masterplan had the go-ahead, there was no quick fix to the sector’s plight.
“The reduction in the size of the industry has often been quoted as a potential solution to the current problem. This is an expensive option and yes, we are seeing farmers diversify their crops to other commodities such as macadamias, but the fact is, in the forthcoming season we still have 20 million tons of cane that has to be harvested, processed and sold on to an oversupplied world market at a rock bottom price.”
Funke said in reality the industry was no longer viable but most diversification strategies that involved the planting of alternative crops such as cotton, soya or macadamias, carried the threat of being less labour intensive, which would have a negative impact on employment for farm workers.
“In short, there is no quick fix to this issue. Macadamias are a good alternative crop to sugarcane, particularly on the KwaZulu-Natal coastline and in Mpumalanga, but the cost of developing a hectare is pegged at between R80 000 and R100 000 a hectare.”
He said reducing the size of the industry was financially inhibitive and expressed concern at the increased water supply required by alternative crops, such as cotton or macadamias.
“At least 70% of the sugarcane crop is under dryland,” he said.
With reference to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address in February where the development of alternative energy seemed to include only wind and solar power, Funke suggested sugarcane farmers be enabled to harvest their own fibre on farm, produce the electricity they need and then feed it into the grid.
“Gasification and anaerobic digestion are technologies that have been investigated and developed. The technology is economically sustainable and viable; all that is required is that a grower be permitted to feed the excess power to the grid. Also, the process of storing power or reverse metering must be allowed and growers should be allowed to use the excess power when and if they need it,” he said.
Ntuli, who was in fact born and schooled in Gauteng, said when she married her late husband Cedric Ntuli, who was better known as “Bra Mike”, she was a city girl who knew nothing about farming.
“I met my husband at church. He was working on the goldfields at the time. Once we were married he decided we should come back to his home in Mtubatuba. That was in 1988. He promised to teach me everything about growing sugarcane, and he did.”
Ntuli said she fell in love with the soil and when she received her first pay cheque from her harvested cane, she was hooked.
“I have worked my way up through the ranks of the sugar industry, from representing small-scale growers in the SA Canegrowers’ regional structures until in 2015, when I was elected to represent our area at the Congress of Growers. In 2016 I was elected to the Board of Directors. In 2018 I was elected vice chair and then re-elected in 2019. I have also completed management courses at Mancosa and at the University of Zululand. I don’t believe you can be a leader without having knowledge,” she said.
Ntuli, who believes the politicisation of agriculture in the country, is a strategy that all of us will live to regret, says she is now pouring her energies into the survival of rural agriculture and in particular, providing support for those – mainly women – who grow sugarcane.