Interview: Push for interventions to increase sugar output

Leo Thokoza Mpofu is a senior sugarcane plant breeder at the Zimbabwe Sugar Association Experiment Station.

A UNIQUE feature of Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector is one of the region’s biggest sugar estates, which feeds both the local and export markets. But at about 400 000 tonnes of output per annum, current production falls way below the industry’s 600 000 tonne installed capacity. During a recent tour of Chiredzi where most of the sugar is grown, our senior business reporter Freeman Makopa (FM) caught up with Zimbabwe Sugar Association Experiment Station (ZSAES) senior sugarcane plant breeder Leo Thokoza Mpofu (LM) to explain what must be done to increase output. In the interview below, Mpofu gives his insights:

FM: Who is the ZSAES?

LM: We conduct research on sugar cane on behalf of the sugar industry. The Zimbabwe Sugar Association comprises mainly the biggest player, Tongaat Hulett Zimbabwe, refineries and small private farmers. Those are the stakeholders on the ZSAES. These are the stakeholders that fund the experiment station.

FM: Tell us more about your role.

LM: Stakeholders, mainly farmers, identify problems while they are growing cane. Some of the problems are not easy to solve. They require specialists to come up with solutions. This is how they realised that they had to recruit specialists to do research and give them solutions to keep increasing yields from the same pieces of land on which they are growing.

Because of population growth, there is pressure on the quantities of food that must be produced.

Productivity has to match the needs of the growing population. One key area of research is plant breeding.

We have to develop new cane varieties, which can produce more sugar on the same piece of land. We play around with plant genetics. Other areas of specialty include combating threats like pests and diseases.

FM: Take us through the aspect of the nutrition of cane.

LM: We have to make sure crops get adequate nutrition to produce sugar. That also requires research because different varieties require different amounts of nutrients. Agronomists will be looking at that. We also have entomologists and pathologists, who look at pests and diseases that affect our cane. 

On irrigation, we need to find where water is, convey it to crops, in adequate amounts. Sugarcane requires a lot of water. If you starve it of water, it gives you less output.

On mechanisation, we try to see how best or what kind of equipment we need for different activities. There are agricultural engineers who assist in terms of technologies, irrigation, land preparation and other things.

FM: What challenges are you facing as a sector?

LM: One of the major challenges is the shortage of seed for farmers.  They always complain that they do not get to them in the right quantities, at the right time. Sugarcane seed is not bought from a store like grain seed. You have to grow it.

With the little hectares that small farmers have, they cannot allocate land to grow their own seed.

They need to grow it somewhere else. Somebody needs to have a seed farm. There are about 1 200 private farmers and we have not yet put that system in place to cater for them.

They rely on big estates to grow seed. But they might not grow the varieties that private farmers want.

FM: How have you addressed these challenges?

LM: We are putting a new system in place that will cater for small private farmers.

We are also looking at how to manage other resources like water. We have to share common infrastructure like water reservoirs and canals that convey water from rivers to farms.

Sometimes you find that farmers might not work together well. These problems can curtail productivity.

FM: We have heard about yellow sugar and aphids. Can you tell us more about this?

LM: This is one of the major pests these days. Small farmers struggle to contain these because they cannot afford to hire aeroplanes (for spraying).

We have now seen that we can have drones, which can be hired. We are coming in to assist farmers in a big way in some of these areas.

FM: What is demand like for sugarcane seed at the moment?

LM: Farmers are using their own commercial crop as seed. But chances are very high that the seed might be infected by a very problematic disease called ratoon-stunting disease.

Once you start with infected seed, your productivity will be significantly affected. The quality of seed is very important.

FM: Do you have current statistics of sugarcane production?

LM: The industry has an established milling capacity of about 600 000 tonnes of sugar. But we are producing 350 000 to 400 000 tonnes per year, which is below capacity in terms of milling. There is still room for improvement.

In terms of hectares, out-growers are approaching 50% of hectares and the other 50% comes from Tongaat Hulett. Private farmers are most likely going to grow with time. There are expansion projects, the future is very interesting.

FM: Can the industry reach 100% capacity?

LM: In the early 2000s we almost achieved 600 000 tonnes of sugar production. That simply tells us that we have the potential. Once you have achieved something, it means you have potential. 

All you need to do is to identify where you have gone wrong. If you go around the industry right now, you will find there are so many pockets of land that are without cane.

Why do people get out of cane production when canals are there and the water is there? There are so many patches (which are not under utilisation), about 5 000 or so hectares.

 FM: So, what should be done?

LM: We should begin to identify those pieces of cane and make sure the farmers get assistance to put the land into production. Land that is unproductive is a challenge.

The next challenge is yield in terms of tonnage per hectare. There is a worrying trend of a decline across the industry. We see that in the past few years, it has been quite significant.

Some of the farmers are not using best practices, especially small private farmers. Sometimes the challenges are very genuine because…because they failed to get inputs at the right time.

Those are the same things that will cause declining yields. There is also the issue of the quality of seed. All these things combined together, lead to a decline in productivity.

FM: Is it legal for some people to grow their sugarcane without a licence? 

LM: The reality is that those who are officially growing cane have to belong to growers’ associations.

Most of the farmers that can take their cane to the mill are registered with the mill.

They have got registration numbers upon which the money will be channelled to.

You cannot take your cane to the mill unless you are a registered member. So officially that is how things operate. But as human beings, sometimes somebody can take somebody else's cane and bring it under their own name.

It is very difficult to detect such situations. Whenever a situation like that is exposed we frown upon that.

FM: Do you have new varieties?

LM: Officially, we have 14 varieties. We are in the tail end of releasing 19 new varieties. Now, that process will be completed before the end of August. We are very excited.

They are very high yielding varieties with very good traits like disease resistance, very high ERC (estimated recoverable crystals) in terms of concentration of sugar in them.

I look forward to releasing these varieties and I know as a plant breeder that they are going to have a positive impact on yields.

We are aware of climate change, and any new technology has to be sensitive (to it). Our varieties are supposed to be sensitive to disease and pest pressures.

But because we are 100% irrigated, the issue of drought tolerance becomes important, especially when there is a threat to water bodies like our dams and decks that supply water to our industry.

But we are 100% irrigated, our biggest threat will be pest and disease pressure.

Related Topics