As major airlines across the world, as well as in South Africa, file for business rescue as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns in major tourist and business destinations, South Africa’s sugar industry is left wondering about what might have been. Or is it?
Bio-jet fuel has been named as one of the most promising by-products of sugarcane production and is high on the list of a raft of solutions tabled to rescue the South African sugar industry from collapse.
And, as the world’s aviation industries count the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic and ponder how to re-build their operations, it is certain it will want to fast track its announced conversion to the use of biofuels in a bid to meet emission-reducing targets.
In an international report released in 2019 it was estimated that 2 500 litres of biofuel could be produced from “engineered” sugarcane grown on 0.4ha of land. A Boeing 747 could fly for just more than 10 hours on biofuel from 22ha of land.
Another report titled Understanding the sustainable aviation biofuel potential in sub-Saharan Africa was released by the Worldwide Fund for Nature South Africa in collaboration with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis predicts that Sub-Saharan Africa could contribute anything between 30 and 90% of the world’s aviation biofuels by 2050. Could this be fast tracked?
The collapse and shutdown of world travel just might be the opportunity so desperately needed by the country’s crisis-ridden sugar industry as environmental world bodies, activists and NGOs call for greener energy production while we learn to live with a disease for which there remains no cure.
Furthermore, if Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan is indeed serious when he says a new, more streamlined and fit-for-purpose airline might emerge from the ashes of the bankrupt South African Airways, is it possible we could see a regional airline plying regional routes fuelled by the country’s sugarcane crop? Well, why not?
In a report released in March and titled Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, the United Nations lists three steps it believes are fundamental to economic survival both during the pandemic and once a vaccine has hopefully been produced.
The first step, the report says, is to “mount the most robust and cooperative health response the world has ever seen”; the second, “to do everything possible to cushion the knock-on effects on millions of people’s lives, their livelihoods and the real economy”, and third, “to learn from the crisis and build back better. Had we been further advanced in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, we could better face this challenge – with stronger health systems, fewer people living in extreme poverty, less gender inequality, a healthier natural environment and more resilient societies”.
In short, and as we hear the ever-increasing call for a greener and more socio-equal exit from this pandemic, so too shall the production of biofuels and green energies become an imperative for countries wanting to participate in the global economy.
More importantly, and of particular interest to South Africa’s cane growers, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) – widely acknowledged as the most credible international standard for biomaterial sustainability – believes our sugar industry could play a vital role in supporting the aviation industry to achieve its target of carbon neutral growth from 2020 and a 50% reduction on 2005 emissions levels by 2050.
Arianna Baldo, who leads RSB Business Development Activities in Africa and the Middle East, said making biofuel with sugarcane would not affect food security in South Africa as it would not involve the clearing of additional land, but rather the deviation of existing production and over-supply.
“It is however crucial for production to comply with a sustainability standard in order to ensure social and environmental stewardship,” Baldo said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, greenhouse gas emissions from global aviation had more than doubled over the past 20 years, accounting for the largest increase in emissions from transport. The industry accounted for 2% of all carbon dioxide emissions for 2016 – releasing 915 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2019, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Forecasts expected aviation to grow at least 5% every year towards 2030, with the demand for aviation fuel growing by approximately 1.5% to 3% a year.
However, with the global aircraft fleet all but grounded and airports mainly hollow, empty halls now, those numbers will probably no longer apply in the short term.
To support fuel producers and users to demonstrate a significant commitment to environmental and social sustainability, RSB recently announced it had submitted its application for recognition under the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) as a step towards assisting the industry as it “looks towards a green recovery from the global COVID-19 crisis”.
The scheme refers to the regulations as agreed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation which comes into effect in 2021 to reduce aviation greenhouse gas emissions.
Baldo said while there had been calls for airline bailouts to be linked to carbon reduction targets, these had yet to be approved.
“We have seen some environmental leadership in countries such as France, where the government has demanded that Air France must cut all routes that can be travelled by train before the airline can benefit from state funding. It is clear that this is an opportunity for public and private investors to shape the low carbon future of the aviation sector, such as demanding for Sustainable Aviation Fuel development that is certified by a reputable certification such as RSB,” she said.
Missed opportunities and unfulfilled promises by the government for more than a decade on biofuel and cogenerated energy plans have not only cost South Africans dearly but failed the country’s sugar industry. The much-vaunted Sugar Industry Master Plan now has a chance to put that right.
At the time of the decision to lock down the country on March 26, the crippled sugar industry and the Department of Trade and Industry were in the throes of finalising a rescue strategy titled the South African Sugarcane Value Chain Master Plan to 2030, following months of meetings and negotiations led by Minister Ebrahim Patel and his appointed advisor, Harald Harvey.
Reportedly the plan has been sent to “all the parties” and signed off, but it remains under wraps until after lockdown.
Documents authored by senior officials in the sugar industry and submitted during the Master Plan talks, however, are quite clear on the nature of the sector’s freefall and what would be required to set it back on an even and profitable footing again.
And perhaps more importantly, its survival would mean the protection of the livelihoods of 19 300 black growers, of whom 18 770 are small-scale farmers, and 850 white growers, of whom 680 are commercial-scale farmers, who combined, employ 65 000 people directly and 270 000 indirectly.
While the alleged signing off of the Master Plan indicates government is committed to short-term support and protection to stabilise the sector, looking longer term, the diversification of production is not only essential, but would have to include:
- Bioethanol for fuel blending
- Bio jet fuel
- Potable, industrial and pharmaceutical-grade bioethanol
- Biomass/co-generated electricity
- Biogas and
- Food sweeteners
High diversification cost
Commercial Executive at SA Canegrowers Thomas Funke said while commercial growers were moving away from sugarcane production by pulling up fields of cane in favour of crops such as avocados and macadamias, the price tag of such conversions was not only high but out of reach for most smallscale growers.
“Macadamias are the most promising alternative option, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal,” said Funke. “The nuts are offering good returns at current prices but converting sugarcane to macadamia orchards does not come cheaply. The estimated establishment cost of converting a hectare of cane to macadamias – provided the grower has sufficient water to irrigate the trees – is between R80 000 and R100 000 a hectare.”
The official macadamia industry body, SAMAC, says production of the nuts increased from 1 211 tons nut-in-shell in 1991 to 59 050 tons in 2019, with the total value of annual production increasing from R32 million in 1996 to approximately R4.8 billion in 2019. Last year, 5 887 new hectares of macadamias were planted, mainly in KwaZulu-Natal, by sugarcane farmers looking to exit the embattled industry.
What is notable though, is that the workforce is mainly seasonal with 10 000 permanent jobs across KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo Province, and 9 000 seasonal jobs added at the peak of the harvesting season.
“Since production is expected to continue to increase due to the rate at which new plantings are being established, employment is expected to continue to grow,” the association says.
Regardless, these numbers can never come close to those where employees and communities derive benefit from the sugar industry.
“The reduction of the size of the industry is often quoted as a potential solution to the sugar industry crisis. This is not only expensive but would involve compensation for the crop in the field. If this were to happen at immature stages, the value of the root stock and the cost of ploughing the cane out must be considered.”
In his submission to the Department of Trade and Industry during the Master Plan discussions, Funke estimated that the cost of reducing the area under cane in 2018 would total about R5.7 billion when all factors were accounted for.
Green energy more cost-effective
Energy diversification, he suggested, was probably the most cost-effective and least complicated route towards a solution.
However, important developments, which include the streamlining of policy and legislation around bio-generated electricity and biofuel blending, would have to move apace to avert an “unmanaged decline or collapse” of the industry.
While Cabinet approved the revised SA Biofuels Regulatory Framework in December last year, the fact is the country’s Biofuels Industrial Strategy was approved as long ago as 2007. The strategy provided for a five-year pilot phase from 2008 to 2013, during which a 2% penetration level of biofuels in petrol and diesel needed to be achieved.
The mandatory blending regulations came into effect in October 2016, and while the fuel specifications for fuel grade biofuels and the blended transport fuels were developed and gazetted, the regulations were never passed into law.
Similarly, a plan in 2009, to allow for excess electricity produced by sugar mills from biomass to be fed into the national grid, never got off the ground either.
In 2011, the industry said the annual sugarcane crop then contained biomass with the energy equivalent to1,75 million tons of coal. The infrastructure investment required was estimated at between R15 billion and R23 billion.
In reality, then, the government’s Sugarcane Value Chain Master Plan to 2030 is not only about rescuing the industry but showing that the same mistakes will not be repeated: that fast-tracked legislation able to approve mandatory fuel blending and a feed-in tariff for co-generated energy can be concluded and implemented, despite the cost of oil at an all-time low and the cost of producing coal-fired electricity remaining cheaper than co-generated power.
Now is an ideal opportunity for the government to show its commitment to implementation and the protection of such vital industries, while paying more than lip service to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change that South Africa signed.
Commercial sugarcane farmer Tim Murray has a family tree rich with mathematicians, engineers and a Scottish provost, to boot, and since the 2019 South African Sugar Technologists’ Conference, he can add to the list his achievement as an award-winning farmer who has served the industry with distinction.
Murray, who was also recognised for a decade of leadership at this year’s International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists’ conference in Argentina, is, however, at his happiest on the family farm near New Hanover which he, his wife Moira, and their three children, have called home since the early 1990s.
“My great-grandfather George was the provost of St Andrews who procured the links that now form the legendary golf course,” he said. “He died, we understand, after a fatal fall from his penny-farthing! My grandfather, John, was an engineer with the British expeditionary forces stationed in India. On the way back to the UK after his tour of duty was completed, the ship stopped in Durban where the young officer decided to get off and start a new life for himself. He was one of the first to grow sugarcane in the Amatikulu area on a farm called Kildonan.”
Murray’s father, Hugh, also an engineer, went seeking his fortune on the copper mines in Zambia before returning to South Africa where he bought land at Doornkop near KwaDakuza, or Stanger, as it was known then.
“In 1964 my father sold up at Stanger and bought a farm called Sweetlands, close to the Noodsberg mill in the Midlands. I started my career in the 1970s as a research engineer at the South African Sugar Research Institute (SASRI). After nearly 10 years, I also went farming and set up a consulting engineering partnership before buying Fat Acre in New Hanover in the Midlands,” he said.
The farm measures 240ha in extant, with 216ha under sugarcane and the balance under pine timber.
Settling into an armchair under the thatched roof of the farmstead he built, Murray expresses concern at the state in which South Africa’s sugar industry now finds itself.
“I absolutely love this industry and the incredible bunch of people who work in it, whether they are millers, growers or are on the administration side of things.”
And while Murray wrote on the decline in both South Africa’s cane quality and milling performance in recent years in a peer review paper he delivered at the ISSCT conference earlier this year, he agreed this was just one aspect of a plethora of woes facing the industry.
For example, a decision by millers to cut back their funding to the agricultural sector’s research and development was not only short-sighted but would affect the integrity of the industry in the long term, he said.
“Right now, there is a real disconnect between our millers and the growers, and when you consider the pressure we are all feeling, we have to work closer together for the good of the industry and its survival. We need broad-based accountability and integrity that has the interests of all stakeholders, rather than just shareholders, at heart,” he added.
Tim and Moira Murray
Neither the production of fuel-grade ethanol nor that of electricity as the foundation of a diversification strategy was economically viable or the silver bullet the industry was so desperately seeking, Murray said.
“What we need is better use of the fibre, including trash, from the farms. Our domestic sugar price is good, the tariff awarded by government is now adequate. But, it’s our share of the local market and the export price for our surplus production that is the problem, and then of course, the imports from countries such as Eswatini. Sugar should be treated as a sensitive product by the South African government in the Africa Wide Free Trade Agreement and we should be looking at creating a quid pro quo agreement between ourselves and the rest of the countries in the SADC region. For example, what about signing research contracts with our neighbours in a range of commodities to add value to our research capacity? Bio-refining is a very good option for us as well: so many plastic products we use in our daily lives could be made from sugar or sugarcane fibre. The skills in South Africa’s sugar industry are world class. I believe they could be applied effectively in our neighbouring countries and across a diverse range of commodities.”
‘As farmers, our only source of income is sugar. If that’s affected, our lives are affected.’
Aubrey Chilenje, Malawian sugarcane farmer and member of the Fairtrade-certified Kasinthula cooperative, responding to the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai.
While rural sugarcane growers in Malawi have re-planted most of their fields since the devastation in the wake of two of the worst cyclones to hit the continent early in 2019, many subsistence farmers are still struggling to rebuild their lives.
In articles published by non-governmental organisations Fairtrade and Bonsucro after the category two cyclones Idai and Kenneth, the devastation on smallholder sugarcane projects, particularly in the low-lying areas of Malawi’s Shire Valley, had not only compromised food security, but income derived from cash crops like sugarcane, often used to pay for children’s education among other household costs, was severely compromised.
In an inhouse newsletter, Illovo Sugar Africa staffer Irene Phalula reported that 12 755 households, or homes to 53 765 people, were affected by the floods in the Shire Valley, of which 56 were headed by children.
Staff from Illovo, Total, Unitrans and FES present food parcels to the District Commissioner and Paramount Chief Lundu, who represented traditional leaders in the district.
One of the 34 evacuation camps was set up at Illovo Malawi’s Nchalo Estate and accommodated 5 532 people from Chikuse village, along the eastern bank of the river.
By May 2019, the camp had closed as most people had returned to their districts or found alternative places to live.
“Most of the damage suffered by the four grower operations supplying the Nchalo mill was either erosion, or siltation of the cane fields. Drains and intake canals were damaged, but most have now been repaired,” an Illovo report said.
Further, the smallscale sugarcane growers who were displaced from their homes during the flood had mostly returned to their homes and villages or found alternative places to live.
However, the long-term damage was to subsistence farmers in the low-lying areas, where homes and fields were destroyed, requiring them either to re-build or start again from scratch.
Further in the Illovo report, most of the subsistence farmers had re-planted their crops and some had benefitted from the silt deposits as a result of the flood, however, many had to deal with sand deposits, which made replanting very difficult.
Rural sugarcane farmers evacuate their homes in the Shire Valley, Malawi, during the flooding after Cyclone Idai.
Hydro power plants further up the river were severely affected by siltation, and deposits of sand in the river itself had degraded the Shire valley eco-system.
Malawi is rated as the fourth poorest country in the world by the International Monetary Fund and in the Fairtrade report, Martine Parry described the Shire Valley as “inhospitable”, with a very hot, harsh climate and a long dry season.
“Literacy levels are low, and poverty is widespread. Most people live in basic huts made from mud, with grass roofs. Few families can afford to keep livestock and most eke out a living from growing maize, cassava, sorghum, millet and rice. Some earn cash from sugarcane or cotton, or by labouring on nearby sugar plantations,” Parry said.
Fairtrade-certified Kasinthula, she added, was just one of three community-led sugar organisations in the valley that supplied their crop to the nearby Illovo mill.
“At least 30 Fairtrade farmer households were totally destroyed by the floods, with about 55 animals washed away and 33ha of their sugarcane fields devastated.”
General Manager for Nchalo Sugar Estate Marc Pousson and Nchalo Human Resources Manager Jeannie Manda welcome President Arthur Peter Mutharika and First Lady Gertrude Mutharika to Chikuse evacuation camp, set up at Nchalo Sugar Estate for some 5 000 people who lost their homes after Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, early in 2019.
Similarly, one of Bonsucro’s members, the Phata Sugarcane Outgrowers’ Cooperative, also along the Shire River, was severely affected by the heavy rains during the cyclone.
Jessica Joubert, regional coordinator: SADC, for Bonsucro, said the cyclones had followed one of the driest seasons in the regions just three years earlier, due to the strongest El Niño weather cycle in 50 years.
“This is a crucial moment for industries and consumers to consider the impact that our actions have on the environment and the people most reliant on it,” she said.
“While the Bonsucro Standards help to improve our climate resilience, central to them is the reduction of our negative impact on the environment. We cannot lose sight of the reason why these practices are important. If we are to make any headway in climate change, we must take every measure to apply sustainability ideals to our businesses.”
The Phata cooperative – which is also Fairtrade certified – experienced “flooding and the loss of some roads, drains and pumps”, she added.
Fairtrade and Bonsucro are both international not-for-profit organisations. The former paves the way for producers in developing countries to achieve better trading conditions, higher prices for exports, as well as improved social and environment conditions for communities, while the latter promotes sustainable sugarcane production through setting standards and certifying cane products that include ethanol, sugar and molasses.
In March 2019, Cyclone Idai made landfall along the east coast of Africa, cutting a swathe of destruction across some of the world’s poorest countries, namely, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi.
Just six weeks later the second category two storm, Cyclone Kenneth, made landfall.
The related wind and flood damage affected more than 3 million people with some 1 500 reported dead and at least 1.65 million people food insecure. Cyclone Idai alone laid waste to about 800 000ha of crops.
And while the images of the destruction and stricken communities have faded from the world’s television screens and social media platforms, the impact of the storms – the worst ever to have hit the Southern African Democratic Community countries – will remain for months, if not years to come, despite repairs and clean-up operations by companies such as Illovo.
Block Media, incorporating SHUKELA PLUS and THE MACADAMIA, believes that business has a responsibility to contribute to the social and economic upliftment of all South Africans, particularly during this trying time of COVID – 19 and the subsequent lockdown of the economy.
Many households have lost their income and thus the ability to support themselves.
BLOK MEDIA have teamed up in support of www.inani.org , as a simple and effective means to support some of these communities through the delivery of essential food parcels to those who need it most.
Once purchased, the parcels are then sent into one of four locations to be distributed to those in need.
We encourage our grower partners, customers, suppliers and the general public to participate in this scheme by purchasing one of these packs. This will ultimately enable us to make a deeper impact for real change.
Please get in touch with the team at inani.org for more information, and to see the wonderful work they are doing.
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