Lack of grinding capacity hurts North Coast sugar industry

After a year of Covid-19, unrest and the closure of 2 mills, the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) sugar industry is facing a crisis of insufficient milling capacity.

With about 10 weeks left in this year’s grinding season, many small-scale and commercial farmers may be unable to grind their entire crop.

The South African Association for Farmers’ Development (SAFDA) called the problem a “looming crisis of biblical proportions”.

KZN owned 14 sugar factories, but Darnall and Port Shepstone have been closed for the past 2 years.

This immediately put a strain on the province-wide grinding capacity, according to the SAFDA, but the struggles of 2021 only made the problem worse.

“We were obviously affected by the closure of the mills for a week in July, there were also blackouts earlier in the year.

“Although the mills are trying to catch up with demand, I think it’s unlikely that more than 80% of my harvest will be milled this season,” said Khethiwe Ngema, farmer from Maphumulo.

Khethiwe Ngema, CEO of KwaCele Farming.

This has direct repercussions on Ngema and its 511 employees.

“If we can’t grind the entire crop, then we don’t have enough income for wages or inputs that will be used for next year’s harvest. “

Farmers and factory councils make an agreement about the volume of crop they will produce in a year, which is then allocated over a milling season.

This means that farmers are likely to produce “priced deliveries” at certain times of the season, and mills are likely to run over them.

“In my case, let’s say I think I’m going to produce 3,000 tonnes of cane over the season.

READ ALSO : Tongaat Hulett to close Darnall plant, leaving hundreds unemployed

“This number is divided to the point that I should maybe deliver 200 tonnes of cane, 15 times,” Doornkop farmer Vusi Gumede said.

Doornkop sugarcane producer Vusi Gumede.

The problem arises when factories fall behind, which in 2021 happened most abruptly due to the unrest.

“The farmers who had cut cane for delivery that week couldn’t do anything. Once you cut the cane you should have it transported the next day, 3 days at most or the purity will be rejected, ”said Gumede.

The factories only take cane that is 75% purity or more. The longer you leave the cane cut, the faster its quality decreases, Ngema said.

South African Farmers’ Development Association CEO Siyabonga Madlala.

While a large farm may endure the rejection of a single priced delivery, for many small farmers it is a significant portion of their income.

“At the end of this season, there will probably be around 2 million tonnes of sugarcane that will not be crushed, which is more than what small producers deliver per season,” SAFDA said.

SAFDA further claimed that smallholder farmers were bulldozed by flour mill commissions who used the sugar regulations against them.

However, Gumede and Ngema said their local mills were doing their best to accommodate all local farmers, even subsidizing the cost of transportation to more distant mills with crushing capacity.

READ ALSO : Former laid-off workers demand ‘workaround’ amid Darnall sugar mill shutdown

The South African Sugar Millers Association (SASMA) acknowledged there was a problem with crushing capacity and said local millers would find ways to crush as much of the crop as possible.

“SASMA is aware of the challenges faced in crushing the entire sugar cane crop during the current season, in some cane supply areas.

“Processing of the crop has been exacerbated by civil unrest in KwaZulu-Natal which closed factories for one to two weeks during the peak crushing season in July. “

“The management of cane supply and sugarcane crushing in each local mill area is handled by the mill group council, an organization where millers and producers are represented.

“These organizations will develop plans to deal with the challenges of crushing the crop for the current season,” said CEO Deane Rossler.

If farmers can survive this year, they will participate in important industry transformation initiatives under the Sugar Master Plan that was signed in 2020.

It aims to diversify the production chain in the sugar industry, while instituting an increased price to pay for cane, which should be introduced in January 2022.

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Rachel J. Bradford