Innovation powers off the grid thinking

Colleen Dardagan

Innovation based on sound research and development aimed at benefiting all growers both large and small-scale, is at the heart of a comprehensive and strategic master plan devised by SA Canegrowers which could result in not only a new look, but a sustainable industry, in the not so distant future. 

SA Canegrowers’ contributors, from left: Industrial Affairs Manager, Dr Muhammad Kadwa; Corporate Executive, Kathy Hurly; Innovations and Technology Manager, Richard Howes.

As critical questions linked to the survival of the global sugar industry were a key theme at the 2019 annual International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists’ (ISSCT) conference, experts in South Africa are calling for fast tracked research, development and innovation in a bid to create sustainable and diverse revenue streams for the domestic sector.

Industrial Affairs Manager at SA Canegrowers, Dr Muhammad Kadwa who attended the ISSCT event, says while many sugarcane producing industries across the world were in a race to create a different future for the commodity, the South African sector was left behind in the starting blocks despite available opportunities for diversification.

“With the global demand for sugar likely to continue to slow down, which is now a reality in South Africa, and the demand for renewable fuel sources becoming ever-increasing, sugarcane has the potential to become a “wonder-crop”. Many industries are already well advanced in their research into a different future for sugarcane with far less reliance on sugar. Some have already implemented diverse production such as ethanol, biodiesel and co-generated electricity. South Africa must not remain behind. Change is urgently required,” Kadwa said.

However, as the South African government remains locked into its coal-fired economic growth plan with limited contributions from solar and wind power and with no immediate plans to change the nature of the country’s fuel supply, the “urgent change” required for the survival of the domestic sector must now come from within says SA Canegrowers Corporate Executive Kathy Hurly.

The grower associations believe that research-based innovation is the foundation of competitiveness and sustainability. SASRI needs to be developing new products that are of value to all growers both large-scale and small-scale. Dr Hurly says that SASRI has an international reputation for sound research-based innovation but what is needed now are outcomes that are practical, cost-effective to implement and either reduce costs or improve profitability while reducing impacts on the environment.

Hurly said that she is looking forward to the 2020 SASRI programme of work which is aimed at getting technology out to small-scale growers. A new feature will be an investigation into how SASRI can be used to provide services for complementary commodities. She reiterated that SA Canegrowers is fully committed to the investment required to support the evolution of diversification envisaged in the Sugar Industry MasterPlan.

Product and independent enterprise development

In line with the masterplan, at the 2019 South African Sugar Technologists’ Association (SASTA) conference, SA Canegrowers’ Innovations and Technology Manager, Richard Howes said his portfolio - under the umbrella of the 100% SA Canegrowers-owned subsidiary Womoba - was now aimed primarily at the development of product diversification and independent enterprises to spread risk and increase sustainability.

“We have a couple of projects on the go which include the completion of a gasification plant at Amatikulu with further development now on the cards in partnership with the Danish government, a Biochar project using a mix of biomass including sugarcane, as well as the stevia – or artificial sweetener - project which is advanced in its development. Also, we have initiated a cane juice drink project and that is also well on its way,” he said.

Howes said one of the aims was to give farmers an option to become energy independent, despite the difficulties created by the current heavily discounted Eskom electricity-supply agreements with agriculture.

“What we are doing now is consulting with commercial growers – particularly those who irrigate - who are prepared to partner with us in getting their farming operations off the grid. Once we get one commercial farm working and are able to prove its efficacy I have no doubt others will follow,” he said.

SA Canegrowers’ contributors, from left: Development Manager; Makhosazana Dlamini; and Research Economist, Sinothando Dube.

Smallscale growers funding study highlights shortfalls

Also at the SASTA event and in a study titled “Potential Economic Benefit of Additional Transformation Initiatives to Small Scale Growers in the South African Sugar Industry”, the Development Manager at SA Canegrowers, Makhosazana Dlamini warned delegates that despite an added R172 million injection by the industry to promote sustainability and transformation among black small scale and land reform cane farmers, progress was less than satisfactory.

“The purpose of my paper was to measure the economic benefits of the added financial contribution by the industry for the development of these growers and the government’s land reform policies,” Dlamini said.

Dlamini’s research, which centred around anecdotal evidence gathered in-field and data out of the annual SA Canegrowers cost survey, showed the funding had been paid to the recipients outside of the planting season resulting in few spending it on the development of their sugarcane fields as was required.

In the findings, Dlamini recommended the funding should be paid out timeously and to coincide with the production season for maximum benefit and that her study should form the basis of a monitoring and evaluation programme to keep a continuous record of whether or not the added funding achieved its intended objective, she said. 

Hurly said a decision had now been taken by the industry to continue to monitor and evaluate the economic benefit and the impact of the funding on the  sustainability of smallscale growers using both the data and the grower interviews by Dlamini on an ongoing basis.

“The outcome of this research has been very important for the industry. Our smallscale growers have been hardest hit by the sector crisis and now we know how and what we should be doing to make sure funding is used effectively to make sure they survive,” she said.

Also, at the SASTA conference, SA Canegrowers’ Research Economist, Sinothando Dube looked at the impact of contractors on the quality of the sugarcane delivered to the mills from smallscale grower operations.

The study found the lack of regulation and in some cases collusion between contractors had resulted in generally low standards of work and poor-quality sugarcane delivered to the mills.

Recommendations from the research included the development of a database of accedited contractors while at the same time comprehensive talks between all those involved to come up with a plan that would see contractors becoming recognised industry partners.

Dube said the final aim was the establishment of a formal regulatory body which was fully integrated into the overall governance of the industry.

“This regulatory body would be responsible for monitoring the contractor database, offer accreditation and to make sure that those on the database adhere to industry agronomic norms and standards. We see a future where contractors will be able to get training and support from the industry,” she said.

Collaboration an imperative

Summarising the contributions by SA Canegrowers to the SASTA conference and the impact of the association’s research and development masterplan, Hurly said to secure the future of the domestic sugar industry collaboration was now an imperative.

“Only through research and analysis that includes input from the growers can the extent of a problem be identified accurately, solutions identified and these results presented. This is why research continues to underpin all out activities at SA Canegrowers.”

In the future, she said, a consortium model could be extended to include government research facilities, universities, extension, growers, scientists and economists, furthering strengthening outcomes that encourage immediate adoption. 

“We are certainly looking forward to a fresh approach to research, development and innovation as part of the future sugar industry masterplan,” she said. 

Article and pictures by Colleen Dardagan, freelance journalist