A seed cane development project launched by SA Canegrowers Association in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands is boosting the quality of sugar cane local small-scale farmers grow. The project aims to increase yields, ensure sustainability and improve profits for black growers.

South Africa’s sugar cane growing community is made up of 80% small-scale black growers, many of whom are women. This community lives deep in rural areas where employment is scarce and alternative forms of income are almost non-existent.

“Over half of SA Canegrowers’ 20 017 members are emerging small-scale black farmers. As such, we recognise the fundamental role these growers play in the sugar industry’s value chain. That is why we have continually prioritised the provision of programmes aimed at developing and supporting this sector,” said SA Canegrowers Association’s deputy chairperson, Dipuo Ntuli.

Supply of quality seed cane to small-scale growers

SA Canegrowers’ Local Grower Council identified the supply of top-quality seed cane to small-scale growers in the Midlands as a paramount factor in keeping the sector’s farming operations sustainable and profitable. The current crisis in the industry highlights the relevancy of this project.

One of the benefits of selling seed cane rather than sending cane to the mill is that the grower achieves the full price per ton. This effectively eliminates the harvest and transport costs of delivering cane to the mill, which decreases farmers’ nett income.

The development project was made possible by SA Canegrowers who secured donations of the expensive seed cane from commercial farmers in neighbouring districts. Delivery and planting started in November last year. The small-scale growers who volunteered for the programme, which is in its third season, had to cover the costs of the planting themselves.

Planting one hectare of seed cane can cost up to R30 000 of which R8 000 to R12 000 is spent on seed and its transport. Having the seed donated and the transport costs paid for means that overheads were substantially reduced.

“Our commercial growers donated and delivered approximately 80 tons of seed cane to seven beneficiaries in Sunduzwayo and Eskojeni in the Umbumbulu district in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands,” said SA Canegrowers’ agriculture business advisor for the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands region, Nothando Buthelezi.

“This was an area-specific project because a needs analysis among small-scale growers in Umbumbulu revealed that exceptionally low yields in the area were linked to older cultivars. Farmers were prevented from accessing newer varieties due to the high cost of the seed cane and the transport,” Buthelezi explained.

Beneficiaries of the seed cane development project

One of the project’s beneficiaries is 78-year-old grandmother Nomsa Mkhize. She now has a stand of N12-variety seed cane on her plot, which she says is more valuable than gold.

“I have grandchildren at university and school. When my husband died in 1993, I took over the farming and the money we receive from our crop has helped finance the education of my children and grandchildren. We live off this farm, so we need this sugar cane,” she said.

Small-scale grower, Mduduzi Ndlovu has also benefitted from the project. A field of N54-variety seed cane donated by commercial farmers in the area is central to his plans to increase the extent of his 1,6ha sugar cane operation. He also aims to improve the quality of the crop he delivers annually to the nearby Eston Illovo mill with this donation.

Pointing to a freshly hoed and fallow field, Ndlovu said that come November he will use some of the seed cane to plant a new field on his plot. He plans to sell the remainder to his neighbours while also sending a quantity for processing once it has matured.

Transforming the sector

The Eston Illovo Sugar Mill, provincial Department of Agriculture and South African Sugar Research Institute supported the seed cane development project. SA Canegrowers’ staff were also involved in the planting process.

“We are confident that the Midlands seed cane development project will contribute to the fundamental and necessary transformation of the sector. Furthermore, we would also like to thank all our partners who have helped make this project an enormous success,” said Buthelezi. – SA Canegrowers Association