By Cydric Damala:
As the Sugarcane Industry Bill continues to lie idle years after its final drafting, the local sugarcane industry continues to operate, largely, unsupported. The disagreements that have taken a toll and gone on to overshadow this year’s sugarcane marketing season, between smallholder farmers on one hand and their milling companies on the other, over prices, are just a tip of an iceberg. Farmers’ frustrations are born out of unmet expectations and fanned by unfulfilled government promises.
The level of neglect towards the sugarcane industry, despite its importance to the country’s economy, is mind boggling. For records, the sugarcane industry has been a star performer in the recent years amidst uncertainties hovering over the county’s erstwhile reliable business of tobacco.
As a result of expansion of hectarage occasioned by the inflow of new producers and processors, the country stands to benefit more from the industry. In addition to Illovo, now, Salima Sugar Company, Presscane Ltd and Ethanol Sugar Company also produce and process sugarcane. These players are supported by over seven thousand smallholder farmers who manage their own farms and supply raw materials to the milling companies.
With the coming of the new players, production has been on the rise from 312,070 tonnes in 1969 to 3.02 tonnes in 2018 representing an average annual growth rate of 6.3 percent. This increase has been supported by seasonal expansion of hectarage under the crop. The industry further, employs over 14 000 people besides being one of the biggest taxpayers in the country. In the face of dwindling tobacco sales due to global anti-smoking lobby, the sugarcane industry offers some glimmer of hope.
This hope however may not be sustained in the absence of a legislation governing the industry. It is common knowledge that any agro-based industry thrives on access to better extension services. However, despite enjoying participation of over 7,000 farmers and entry of new milling companies, there exist no formal extension services for the sugarcane industry of Malawi. This entails that smallholder farmers who are cultivating over 7, 000 hectares of land do not have any government specialised extension support. This further denotes lack of research and uptake of new information which affects farmers’ productivity.
The problem is aggravated by the lack of a curriculum in local tertiary institutions for training experts in sugarcane farming. Inaccessibility of training opportunities has created acute shortage of expertise and threatens the very continued performance of the industry amidst entry of more players.
The few organised farmers’ associations, who are able to train their members at institutions closer to home, in South Africa or Swaziland, oftentimes end up losing them to bigger and well established institutions. Without the legislation the industry is also bedevilled by proliferation of illegal seed and inability to manage diseases which in the end continue to affect its optimal productivity.
There have been some attempts to sanitise the industry. The Sugarcane Growers Association of Malawi, an umbrella body for smallholder growers, was born out of this intention. Since its inception some few years ago, the organisation has made strides in providing a voice and capacity building support to its membership. That has however, has proven to be too big a task and unattainable a goal in the absence of a law governing the industry.
The association lacks the support to fight illegal sugar imports and the muscle to impose itself on an industry that has for a long time been a monopoly of Illovo. Farmers continue to have little say in how the business is run.
The current feud in Dwangwa where farmers are accusing Illovo of failure to live by their Cane Supply Agreement and make available information on price determination is just but one of the perennial challenges the industry is grappling with.
Among others, the bill establishes the Malawi Sugarcane Industry Commission which is envisaged to provide advice to Government on policies and strategies for promotion and development of the sugarcane industry and creation and promotion of a competitive environment in the sugarcane industry.
The 49th Session of Parliament, now in progress, presents a perfect opportunity for legislators to right the wrongs facing the industry. The bill carries with it hope of an amplified voice for the smallholder farmers, it ensures processors of protection from unhealthy competition emanating from illegal imported sugarcane products in addition to also making provisions for extension support to smallholder farmers among others.
If enacted, the law will help organise and re-energise the industry to the benefit of its players. Knowing sugarcane farming as one of the best available and viable businesses for farmers in Chikwawa, Nkhotakota and now Salima; any caring government cannot afford further delays on the bill.