Sugar mill breathes hope into Pongola

Since buying Pongola Mill in 2009, TSB Sugar Holdings has made considerable investments in the mill and its staff and is developing its relationship with growers. This strategy promises to lay a solid foundation for the future.

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It seems like just yesterday that sugar cane growers in the Pongola Mill cane supply area were complaining bitterly about the poor performance of the mill. A sudden, unpleasant spike in input and electricity cost led to productivity and investment taking a beating.

Growers also faced unexpectedly high instalments for the Bivane Dam. Completed in 2001, the dam cost growers R130 million instead of the projected R95 million, which they had to repay with an annual R1 000/ha levy. Pongola slipped into a dark period. Farmers became despondent and sold out, or changed to farming other crops.

But in August 2009, TSB Sugar Holdings bought Pongola Mill from Illovo, making it TSB’s third mill in South Africa. It increased TSB’s annual sugar production to about 650 000t/year, 30% of all sugar produced in SA.

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Now, in the words of commercial sugar cane farmer and Pongola Mill group board chairperson Edmond Rouilliard, a fresh breeze has blown over Pongola Valley. “From a farmer’s perspective, things have totally turned around,” he says.

Crush rate
TSB has made this turnaround possible by pouring a significant amount of cash into mill performance and staff development. On its first off-crop, TSB spent R60 million in capital expenditure and maintenance. Over the next three to four years it will spend an estimated R85 million, and has also allocated R1,9 million for training and staff development.

During TSB’s first season in 2009, the mill crushed only 1,126 million tons of cane, down from the 2010 season of 1,135 million tons. But there’s some comfort in these figures. For the 2011 season, the mill is aiming to crush 1,3 million tons, with the goal of crushing 1,4 million by 2013/14.

The mill averages 240t cane/hour, a 10% increase on last year’s crush rate of 220t. The daily average record of 250t/hour – last achieved in 2003/04 – was broken several times this year. Added to this, the quality of sugar produced by the mill has vastly improved.

“Last year we were condemned by a major industrial user because our quality was inconsistent. Now we are certified by Coca-Cola East & Central Africa and are up to date with the quality specifications required by Coca-Cola. We also received Pick n Pay’s Silver Award for quality,” says Pongola Mill GM Trevor Endres.

Better quality
Central to the mill’s turnaround plan is the development of a mutually beneficial relationship with farmers to get higher volumes of better quality cane to the mill. This involves a three-pronged approach: introducing an incentive scheme; introducing tissue culture seed cane plots; and subsidising the use of cane ripener.

TSB has bought tissue culture plants to be used by the local Pest and Disease Committee to propagate seed cane, to be bulked up on about 10 farms throughout the area. Certified seed cane has also been brought in from the South African Sugar Research Institute (SASRI) to speed up the process.

Contact TSB Pongola Mill on 034 413 8100, and Garreth Sparks on 034 413 1215, or email [email protected].