Commercial sugarcane farmers seed small-scale grower profits
In Mduduzi Ndlovu’s vegetable garden, fat green tomatoes hang in shiny bunches alongside ranks of sweet potatoes while ripening cabbages – boasting healthy purple green leaves - lift their conical heads to soak up the winter sun.
Meanwhile, a plastic cold drink bottle filled with water glints amid seeding carrots. “That’s to protect my crops from animals that come in the night - it shines, and the intruders run away,” says Ndlovu, moving a pink hose pipe and sprinkler from a bed of onions.
And while he agrees the stand of fluffy-headed sorghum is essential for brewing traditional beer, particularly during South Africa’s COVID-19 prohibition, it’s the bordering field of sugarcane that has the former bus driver beaming with pride.
The field of N54 seedcane – which overlooks the Nongwane Dam near Eston - is central to Ndlovu’s plan to increase the extent of his 1.6ha sugarcane operation while improving the quality of the crop he delivers annually to the nearby Eston Illovo mill.
Pointing to a freshly hoed and fallow field, Ndlovu says come November he will use some of the seedcane to plant up the land and will sell the remainder to his neighbours while also sending a quantity for processing once it had matured.
At the current RV price, growers are getting paid about R500 a ton. A ton of seedcane sells for between R700 and R1000.
The benefit of selling seedcane rather than sending cane to the mill is the grower achieves the full price per ton, whereas transport and harvesting costs mean farmers get a much smaller share of the cane delivered to the factory.
Ndlovu said he had attended a SA Canegrowers cane husbandry course at the nearby Umbumbulu Hall where he learned how to plant seedcane and nurture the crop to ensure maximum yield.
“The seedcane – which is very expensive – was donated by commercial farmers in my neighbouring district through the SA Canegrowers’ small-scale grower development project,” he said.
South Africa’s sugarcane growing community is made up of 80% small-scale black growers - many of whom are women - living in deep rural areas where employment is scarce and alternative forms of income are almost non-existent.
To emphasise the point, another grower, 78-year-old Nomsa Mkhize, says she depends on her fields of sugarcane and, if she could, she would grow many more plots of the crop.
“You don’t have a farm you can lend me - or give me?” she quips.
The hard-working grandmother, who also qualified for the SA Canegrowers’ small-scale development project, now has a fine stand of N12 seedcane which she says is more valuable than gold.
“I have grandchildren at university and at school. When my husband died in 1993 I took over the farming and the money we get from our crop has helped in the education of my children and grandchildren.
“We live off this farm - we need this sugarcane,” she said.
SA Canegrowers’ Agriculture Business Advisor for the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands region, Nothando Buthelezi says the association identified the supply of top quality seedcane to small-scale growers as a highly important factor in keeping the sector’s farming operations sustainable and profitable, particularly in the face of the current crisis in the industry.
“About 80 tons of seedcane was donated and delivered by our commercial growers to seven beneficiaries in Sunduzwayo and Eskojeni in the Umbumbulu district in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands,” said Buthelezi.
“Delivery and planting started on November 6 last year. No government or industry funding was available for this project. The small-scale growers who volunteered for the programme – which is underway in the area for the third season – had to cover the costs of the planting themselves,” Buthelezi said.
Planting a hectare of seedcane can cost up to R30 000 so to have the seed donated and the transport costs paid for meant overheads were substantially reduced.
The programme was extensively supported by the Eston Illovo Sugar Mill, the provincial Department of Agriculture and the South African Sugar Research Institute. SA Canegrowers’ staff were integrally involved during the planting process.
“This was an area-specific project because a needs analysis among small-scale growers in Umbumbulu revealed the reason for very low yields in the area was directly linked to older cultivars. Farmers were prevented from accessing newer varieties due to the high cost of the seedcane and the transport,” Buthelezi said.