A sweet renaissance

VC_derocking_of_sugarcane_fields_in_mauritius.jpgDerocking of sugarcane fields in Mauritius © Mauritius Sugarcane Industry Research Institute

The development of a range of sugarcane by-products has revitalised the Mauritian sugar industry - a winning strategy.

The narrative of a long-expected death has proven ill-founded. The Mauritian sugar sector was heading towards economic disaster after the European Union (EU) scrapped its Sugar Protocol in 2007 and sugar prices subsequently fell by 37%, with the decisive blow expected to come once the system of sugar quotas is dismantled in 2017. But this scenario has not taken form because Mauritius implemented reforms and strategically repositioned its activities by transforming its sugar industry into a sugarcane processing industry. This industry integrates all economic components necessary for optimal processing of the raw material.

Mauritius first reduced the number of sugar factories from 17 in 1997 to four in 2014 to make the industry more competitive. But these remaining factories can crush more cane and also produce electricity. The country then invested in the production of 400,000 t per year of refined and specialty sugars, which are more profitable than raw sugar, through strategic partnerships, including with the German company SuedZucker AG. These sugars are sold directly to major clients, including European companies, such as Nestlé and Danone, and supermarkets. Gone are the days when the Mauritian sugar industry merely produced brown sugar for Tate & Lyle, the British company that refined and sold it on the European market.

The Mauritian industry also makes effective use of bagasse, a sugarcane residue. This residue was discarded as waste when the industry was focused on the production of brown sugar, prior to the price drop. Bagasse is now used along with coal as fuel for cogeneration applications, generating around 20% of the electricity consumed on the island. Ethanol is also produced from molasses, another sugarcane by-product that was once used as fertiliser. Finally, agricultural rum is another sugarcane-based product that is always appreciated in France, which imports several tens of thousands of bottles yearly.

In Mauritius, people now talk about the sugarcane industry rather than the sugar industry since all parts of the plant are now being used. So the issues that arose following the EU sugar reform have now been turned into opportunities that have saved the industry.

Forgotten small-scale growers?

Producers, especially small-scale growers, however, are not fully benefitting from this trend. Around 20,000 smallholders cultivate about 40% of the overall sugarcane growing area. “We sell our sugarcane as raw material to the sugar factories and get practically nothing back in return for the bagasse, electricity, vinasse, molasses or ethanol they produce from our sugarcane - we only get paid for the sugar,” says Jugessur Guirdharry, a farmer member of the Union Park Cooperative Society in southern Mauritius. Farmers have to cope with rising production costs, including fertilisers, herbicides, labour and transportation. “If a small-scale grower is not involved in some of the field work and has to hire workers for the task, then he won’t be able to keep his head above water,” Guirdharry adds.

When brown sugar was the only sugarcane product manufactured on the island, nobody was interested in the by-products. Now that bagasse has value, small-scale growers are demanding fair compensation for this by-product. Moreover, the factories keep 22% of the produced sugar to pay for their cane crushing operations, which small-scale growers deem too high. Fearing that these small-scale sugarcane growers would switch to another crop, Kailash Purryag, President of the Republic of Mauritius, interceded to reduce this share.

Sen Dabydoyal, a farmer member of the Médine Cooperative Society in eastern Mauritius, says, “We have not yet hit rock bottom, but we’re not far. The number of small-scale growers who add value to the Mauritian sugarcane industry will decrease along with the sugarcane growing area.” Some cooperatives that had up to 300 members not long ago now only have around 50.

The sugarcane industry is growing, but danger looms. The future dismantling of the system of sugar quotas in 2017 could result in lower prices, which will likely be a significant blow to small-scale sugarcane growers.

Nasseem Ackbarally

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