Advertise in the Shukela Plus Tech Edition

Advertise in the Shukela Plus Tech Edition

The next edition of Shukela Plus – aptly titled Shukela Tech – which is due for publication early
in July, will reflect the growing trend in the sugar industry towards production diversification and
technology innovation.

Renowned sugar industry scientist, Dr Kathy Hurly will be writing for the edition in partnership
with our highly experienced agricultural journalists. The specific focus is on information and
research that highlights the core aims of the industry’s Sugarcane Value Chain Masterplan to
2030. The plan is aimed at overhauling the sugar-producing industry in the country.

Make sure your products or services – which are critical to the revival of this important agri-sector
– are visible to decision-makers, growers and technical advisors alike book your space now.

The Shukela Plus -Tech will be distributed in a digital format to all those who attend the annual sugar industry SASTA Congress.


Belinda Mockridge
083 653 7021

Tongaat Hulett banks on the Masterplan

Tongaat Hulett banks on the Masterplan

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?

Simon Harvey

Simon Harvey

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.

Communities and farmers benefit from macadamia prosperity

Communities and farmers benefit from macadamia prosperity

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.

Supporting communities

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.



Durban, 13th July 2020: Tongaat Hulett Sugar is actively partnering with 13 restitution communities overseeing 6 000 hectares across South Africa and has allocated hundreds of thousands of rands to promote sustainable land reform, support local communities and help create employment opportunities.


Tongaat Hulett Sugar Corporate Affairs Executive Nkonzo Mhlongo says the restitution projects have a strong local community element, and the company annually allocates funding to promote the social and economic wellbeing of the claimant communities. The restitution communities are administered by the Trustees or Communal Property Association (CPA) committee members on behalf of the claimants.

“We have seen excellent results, with over R11 million being paid to restitution communities in 2019, representing about 3 600 known beneficiaries, in the form of rental and a further R223 000 was paid in the form of the sugar industry interventions. These restitution projects created employment opportunities for 1 059 individuals and paid approximately R44 million in the form of wages,” she said.

In 2019, Tongaat Hulett Sugar allocated R342 000 towards the implementation of socio-economic development (SED) projects which included the renovation of offices.

Mhlongo says that over the years, funding had also been allocated towards the renovation of schools; support for vulnerable children in the respective communities through the donation of school uniforms; and other relevant educational material.  SED funding has also been allocated towards the education and training of the youth in these communities.  An additional R731 000 was allocated through the sugar industry. This funding was used to provide governance training for the Committee members and Trustees.

For the 2020/21 season, the sugar industry committed R14 million to build the capacity of farmers and land reform beneficiaries on matters relating to governance and agronomy. Tongaat Hulett supports such initiatives as they contribute to the viability of the farmers and restitution projects.  The capacity building and training programme is conducted by the Shukela Training Centre (STC) and targets a wide range of topics including good governance with a particular focus on the barriers to good governance. It also focuses on the roles and responsibilities and the code of ethics of Trustees or CPA members.

Makhosi Cebekhulu, a member of the Ubizo CPA, said that “the workshops are excellent – the facilitators educate and emphasise the two most important themes in restitution: good governance and administration.  I really liked the lecture on financial administration. Had we been exposed to such training a year after our election into office as a CPA, we would have put in place appropriate systems and we would have acquired the status of the best governed CPA”.

Ubizo community’s land was restored in 2015 and this approval resulted in the acquisition of land totalling 2 547 hectares to the value of R136 million. A total of 149 households were identified as the beneficiaries of this restituted land.  In 2018, Tongaat Hulett entered into a working arrangement with the CPA which resulted in the re-establishment of some 1 749 hectares under sugarcane. The farm has a maximum production capacity of 100 000 tons.  During the 2019/20 season, the farm produced some 98 000 tons of sugarcane; employed 409 people in the various roles within the farm including management, administration, planting, supervisors, cutters, herbicide operators and night watchmen.  A total of R17.1 million was paid in the form of wages in 2019.

Mduduzi Nzuza, a Trustee of Izindophi Community Trust at Eshowe said that “the governance training should have been implemented a long time ago.  The explanations provided on the various scenarios on governance matters were practical and relevant for our environment.  In fact, we have implemented some of the techniques that we learnt during the training.  We have now established sub-Committees to cascade information and accelerate implementation of projects at community level.  These types of training should not be a once off – they should be ongoing.  I would like to thank all the stakeholders that made such a workshop possible”.

Izindophi Community Trust officially took occupation of the land in 2003.  In 2012, the Trustees entered into a working agreement with Tongaat Hulett with the objective of re-establishing the property as a productive sugarcane farming enterprise for the benefit of the community.  A total of 436 hectares were re-established following the signing of the agreement.  During the 2019/20 season, the farm produced some 19 000 tons of sugarcane, created 80 employment opportunities in the various part of its operation and paid R3.3 million in the form of wages.

Spha Shabalala, Land Reform, Community Dynamics and SED Manager, said that governance training is one of the key steps required to ensure the long-term sustainability of restitution. “As government continues to restore land for individuals and communities previously dispossessed, the population of restitution projects will increase in the farming space. The same is true within the sugar industry. These projects are typically located in rural areas and are critical in functioning of the rural economy. Support for their sustainability translates to a number of socio-economic positives”.


Tongaat Hulett recognises that land reform is primarily an issue of basic human rights.  Under the land reform programme, Tongaat Hulett works with two categories of farmers. The first grouping is categorised as the restitution communities and the second category is classified as land reform growers farming for their own account. Typically, restitution communities acquire land, through government’s land claims process, as a group for the benefit of many beneficiaries.  With regards to the land reform growers, the beneficiary is the applicant which is mostly a few individuals.

The main objective of the restitution programme is to unlock the economic benefit of the land for the previously marginalized communities. It is also to enable communities, majority being rural communities, to drive the local economic development efforts in their local municipalities.  Some of the restitution communities in the sugarcane growing areas have approached Tongaat Hulett to partner with them and accelerate the implementation of the sugarcane development programme and rural development efforts. Through the restitution programme, the respective communities in partnership with Tongaat Hulett have created employment opportunities; facilitated the transfer of agricultural and administrative skills; and supported community upliftment activities.

CAPTION: Makhosi Cebekhulu, a member of the Ubizo Communal Property Association and the rural farming community (KZN), was trained by Tongaat Hulett Sugar under an Agricultural Internship Programme to become a farm assistant.

Sugar producer welcomes tribunal green light for sale of starch business

Sugar producer welcomes tribunal green light for sale of starch business

TONGAAT Hulett has welcomed a decision by the Competition Tribunal to approve without conditions the acquisition of Tongaat Hulett Starch by the KLL Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Barloworld.

The decision by the South African Competition Tribunal is the third approval in the jurisdictions that are relevant to the transaction, with the Botswana Competition Commission and the COMESA Competition Commission having already approved the transaction without conditions.

The final approval is awaited from the Indonesian Competition Commission and is expected in the first week of August.

Tongaat CEO Gavin Hudson said the approval of the transaction without conditions is a significant step forward towards finalising the deal. “The approval by the SA Competition Tribunal has been achieved within the anticipated timelines, despite the impact on the process due to the COVID-19 environment.

“This is good news and means we can focus on closing the final conditions relating to the deal. These involve obtaining the consent of our lenders, and the resolution of the MAC event that Barloworld has called,” he said.

In May, Barloworld indicated it believed a material adverse change (MAC) had occurred in relation to the sale of the starch business to Barloworld. Tongaat disputed this and, according to Hudson, “remains firmly of the view that a MAC has not occurred”. The matter has been referred to an independent third party for determination.

He said the company remained committed to finalising the disposal of the starch business, which is one of a range of initiatives Tongaat Hulett has initiated as part of its broader business turnaround process.

“The successful execution of any of these transactions, or a combination of them, will ensure we can deliver on our strategic business partnerships; step-changing our transformation initiatives, protecting employee jobs and helping support the economies of the countries in which we operate,” he said.

Farmers neglect the media at their peril

Farmers neglect the media at their peril

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.