The sweet smell of success: the revival of Zimbabwe’s sugar industry

A recent report by the USDA’s Global Agricultural Information Network has shown that Zimbabwe’s sugar industry is rebounding fast on the back of a 6% increase in area cultivated mostly by private outgrowers who are part of the A2 land reform allocations.  Sugar output in 2012/13 is expected to increase by almost 16% to 430000 tonnes from the 372000 tonnes in 2011/12 season, with 160000 tonnes expected to be exported, earning important revenue for the country.

Much of this is happening in the lowveld of Masvingo province, and in the large estates, including Hippo Valley and Mkwasine where we have been studying sugar production on A2 outgrower plots since 2000 (see video here). The Hippo Valley story reflects the wider picture.

Towards the end of last year the Zimbabwe newspapers carried a double page spread reporting the annual results of Hippo Valley Estates Ltd, which are wholly owned by the South African conglomerate Tongaat Hulett. The highlights were: revenue up by 30% at USD90m, with an operating profit of over USD17m. The commentary was upbeat: “The relatively stable operating environment continues to provide a platform for the recovery, growth and development of the sugar industry … The Company remains focused on its goal to achieve full milling capacity utilization of more than 300000 tons annual sugar production over the next three years”.

Although a way off the target in 2012 at just over 160k tons, total deliveries of cane were up 40% on 2011, with 1.349m tons of cane produced by private growers and the company. Private growers’ deliveries were up 55% on the previous year, and an additional 178k tons was delivered by Green Fuel Ltd, the biofuel company linked to the infamous Billy Rautenbach. With the integration of the once separately controlled estates at Triangle and Hippo Valley, the company envisages a total combined capacity of 4.8m tons of cane production, resulting in 600k tons of sugar.

With both company funds and external support, channelled through the EU, there has been considerable investment in cane production on ‘uncontested’ private land (mostly in the Chipwa and Mpapa areas). Private cane growing has expanded dramatically from the relatively small outgrower arrangements that existed in the past. The company report notes that “in the current season, 611 indigenous private cane growers, farming 11138ha and employing 5569 people will supply 772000 tons of cane generating for them US$50 million in revenue”.

The company estimates that private growing could increase substantially on the basis of existing mill capacity. They estimate an additional 661 growers farming 12742 ha could supply 1.4 million tons of cane each year to the Hippo Valley mill, creating employing for 12000 and additional revenue of US$150m. This would amount to a total employment in the sugar industry of 30000, and a revenue of around US$250m. This would surely be the sweet smell of sugar success.

The rebounding of the Zimbabwe sugar industry is attracting attention in the business press in South Africa clearly seeing the investment value for South African companies. Interestingly and typically, the Business Day report failed completely to mention that the growth of production is being driven by a revived partnership between South African capital and new land reform beneficiaries.

But to achieve such ambitious targets, and to continue the impressive growth, will require much new investment, not least in rehabilitating and replanting cane fields, and supply new water resources for newly cleared land. Sugar has long been a central part of Zimbabwe’s agricultural economy, providing stable revenues for the treasury, and earlier when part of ACP agreements, benefiting from a guaranteed and profitable market. Rather overshadowed by the success of the tobacco sector, sugar has not been much in the spotlight, but deserves to be. Just as in tobacco, but in a more organised, estate linked production system, an increasing proportion of production is now coming from outgrower areas allocated as A2 plots as part of the land reform.

As we showed in our book, production in these sites in Hippo Valley in the remote lowveld area of Chiredzi district (and also in Triangle and Mkwasine estates) increased over time from the establishment of A2 plots in 2002. In parallel these farmers accumulated equipment, transport and invested in their land. They also employed considerable amounts of labour. As we documented, they had at that time an uneasy relationship with the core estate. The estate management did not know how to deal with the new outgrowers. They had been used to dealing with a relatively few white and Mauritian outgrowers, but now there were hundreds (around xx plots are registered in Chiredzi district as A2 farms across Hippo Valley and Mkwasine). Many new farmers felt they were being squeezed, with low prices offered, quality controls dubiously applied and transport being supplied late. They thought, perhaps correctly, that the estate management was waiting for them to give up, so the old regime which was easier to manage and control could be reinstated.

From around 2007 when the economy was in freefall sugar production collapsed. Payments being offered in Zimbabwe dollars were meaningless and credit arrangements and cheque payments were wiped out by hyperinflation. Many did indeed give up, ripping out their cane and planting other crops, including maize and tomatoes. But with the stabilisation of the economy through dollarization in 2009, the situation changed. The incentives to reinvest in sugar production returned, and the estate management changed its tune. Now they needed cane desperately so they could break even running the huge mills and vast estates. They belatedly realised that they had to accept private outgrowers, and encouraged them to reengage. And in the period from 2009 they have done on a massive scale as the company figures show.

Now the company is more upbeat about the new outgrower model. It is not as if this is alien to them, as in other operations in the region, this sort of relative smallholder model is dominant. Indeed compared to operations in Zambia and South Africa the new A2 plots are large, average 20-30ha, enough to produce a substantial amount of cane, and some other crops besides. Cane farmers in our study sample in Hippo Valley are much more optimistic now. We are currently doing a resurvey of the small sample we investigated in 2007-08, and I will report back the results in due course.

However there are constraints. The company report alludes to these obliquely mentioning the performance has been “despite the prevailing liquidity and socio-economic challenges”. These are many of course, not least the on-going uncertainty over tenure arrangements in the outgrower areas. Leases have been promised, but only offer letters exist. More significantly there has been a rumbling of discontent among the Shangaan political elite from the area, complaining that ‘outsiders’ got the prime sugar areas. Some influential people have barged others out of their plots, asserting their ‘indigenous’ rights. Most A2 sugar farmers are indeed from outside the area; many are (or were) civil servants, many from the ministry of agriculture. In the scramble for A2 plots through a chaotic and patronage-influenced allocation system, sugar plots were seen as prime targets for those in the know, and they carefully filled their forms and ‘business plans’ to ensure they were successful. By the mid-late 2000s many regretted this move, but now they are much more happy, which is why the land is become contested again.

Questions of finance (or ‘liquidity’) are also significant, as the company notes. It is not cheap to farm sugar: you need equipment, significant amounts of inputs, a lot of labour, irrigation and expensive transport. And you need to replant on a sustainable rotation: crops planted one year may not yield significantly for several years hence. At the farm level cash flow is the perennial challenge, and without effective credit and banking systems in rural Zimbabwe, this is tough without company support. Yet reliance on a single company, just as any contract farming arrangement, puts the grower at a disadvantage in terms of negotiating a good deal. But there are also other pressing financing issues in the sugar sector. The infrastructure was originally built in the 1950s and 60s, and much of it is decrepit and in need of repair. Irrigation canals need constant attention, as do rail lines and mill machinery. Extending farmed areas requires clearing, levelling and laying of canals. None of this is cheap. With profits being scarce in recent years, the company has not invested. External strategic investments financed by the EU under the post ACP regime Adaptation fund are constrained. Euro 45m have been allocated, but only 10m euro have been released to date via the Canelands Trust, a body controlled by the company. Due to sanctions, only areas which were not part of the ‘fast-track’ land reform programme are eligible, meaning that most new private outgrowers – the largest producers today of Zimbabwean sugar – cannot benefit from the industry rehabilitation programme (at least officially – there is course there is considerable leakage and wider investments benefit everyone). These anomalies created by the political stand-off between the EU, and other western donors, and the Zimbabwean government, despite much evidence that sanctions do more harm than good, continue, and are likely to at least until after the next elections.

Meanwhile, and despite these constraints, the sugar industry continues to grow, providing livelihoods, income and employment for many, and much needed revenue for the government exchequer too.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “The sweet smell of success: the revival of Zimbabwe’s sugar industry

  1. Ken May

    The problems you have described were a direct result of the chaotic land reform. It led to the hyperinflation which created so much uncertainty about prices that no one knew what prices to offer or accept. Transport was a big problem everywhere, so it is little wonder that transport was supplied late. It is wong to blame Hippo Valley for the results of those circumstances. Many middle class professionals quit their jobs around 2007/8 for similar reasons.

    In my experience of Zimbabwe, there is nearly always a reluctance to renew infrastructure and allow for maintenance when calculating the viability of any project. That’s why so many boreholes and dams have been left in a state of disrepair in rural areas. That’s partly due to necessity but also due to a reluctance to co-operate as a group.

    Until there is political stabilty and a return to the rule of law, leases will not be issued and the political elite will create problems. Especially with an election coming up.

    • You are right that the economic chaos of the mid-2000s massively undermined the sugar industry, making it difficult for the new farmers and the estate companies alike. However it was not land reform per se that caused the hyperinflaiton, but extreme economic mismanagement, combined with capital flight and donor ‘restrictive measures’ which caused the economy to nose-dive. Crucially, it has been the land reform beneficiaries who have driven the recovery since. The political and economic stablility that has emerged since the GNU in 2009 has allowed this to happen. Let’s hope peaceful elections will prevail and a new government will be formed successfully to continue the road of recovery.

  2. Ken May

    What extreme economic mismanagement?

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