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Water-wise cane excites Coke
Water-wise cane excites Coke

Water-wise cane excites Coke


Business Day - Feb 13th 2012, 09:13

The South African sugar industry’s greatest challenges are lack of access to sufficient water and growing the expertise of its small farmers, says the Coca-Cola Company’s water and sustainable agriculture director, Denise Knight.  

Ms Knight was in SA earlier this month.

The sugar industry directly employs about 137000 people, and indirectly another 110000 — making it SA’s biggest agricultural employer (11%), accounting for 1,3% of the total number of jobs in the country. But SA is a water-scarce country and, according to government statistics, back in 2005, 95% of SA’s freshwater resources had been allocated.

"We really have to look at how to grow more (sugar) with less (water) ; farmers can do a lot in terms of irrigation and broader natural resource management. Alien plants take up a lot of water," says the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF’s) Inge Kotze, co-ordinator of the nongovernmental organisation’s Biodiversity and Wine Initiative.

Coca-Cola, one of the world’s largest multinationals with a reported $11040m in net operating revenue for the three months ending December 31 last year, decided about three years ago that it needed to extend its focus on sustainability by looking to its supply chain. "The biggest part of our water footprint was water for actually growing sugar … without water there is no business," Ms Knight said.

While the company may have been slightly ahead of the curve, a report published this month by the global climate change reporting system known as the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) and the global management consultancy Accenture shows that multinational companies, having cut their own direct greenhouse gas emissions, are increasingly turning their focus to their supply chains for further reduction.

Here in SA, KwaZulu-Natal’s Sustainable Sugarcane Farm Management System (SusFarMS) initiative had grown out of a partnership started in 2001 between the WWF, the Wildlife and Environment Society of SA, the Mondi Wetlands Programme and sugar cane farmers in the province’s Noordsberg area. It was one of the first comprehensive sustainability frameworks for sugar cane growers, not only in Africa, but globally.

Ms Knight came to the Noordsberg area in February 2009, and heard of the initiative’s programme working with small-scale sugar farmers to help them form co-operatives and get better returns for their work.

SusFarMS’ s 400-member commercial farmers work to a "metric" developed in SA that guides them on how to treat the environment, staff and yield.

"South African farming overall is one of the most productive in the world," Ms Knight said.

She said the formula fitted neatly into Coca-Cola’s 2009 commitment to itself to change the way it did business.

Ms Knight said the turnaround was aimed at reducing the company’s overall carbon footprint of its business operations by 15% compared to a 2007 baseline; reducing packaging; maximising its use of renewable, reusable, and recyclable resources to recover the equivalent of 100% of its packaging; minimising water use so that the company had a water-neutral effect on local communities; and promoting customer information and its workforce’s cultural diversity.

Doing more with less is also good business, and sweetners, including sugar, are key to Coca-Cola’s business. The company sources all of its sugar for its South African operations in SA.

According to company statistics, the Cola-Cola bottlers in SA sell an average of 235 beverage servings to each person in the country every year — a rough total of 10-billion units.

This is not organic farming, it is large-scale commercial farming, but Ms Kotze says that it is precisely because of this that the WWF chose to work with SusFarMS. "We need to engage with the commercial sector because that’s where we will see the biggest impact. The biggest challenge is water. It limits everything," she says.

Simply removing alien plants from wetlands helps enormously. One of the biggest pests found in SA’s cane fields is a moth genus called Eldana saccharina. Its common name says it all — African sugar-cane borer moth.

"Eldana occurs in wetland plants. If you remove wetlands it goes into cane. It’s astounding, €15m a year is lost to the sugar cane industry through Eldana," says Ms Kotze.

It’s eight years since SusFarMS began, and the initiative is being broadened across SA’s cane-growing areas.

"Farmers, over time, have begun to recognise that this is best practice," said Ms Knight. Over three or four years the programme tripled sugar yields. "If you maintain roads and the rest of the (farming) infrastructure, manage logistics, and buy in bulk, you start to see tremendous results."

"There is a huge opportunity in SA. You have the infrastructure and the industry. Now the big challenge is how to get the small farmers up to the same standard (as large commercial farmers)," she said.

There are public and private projects under way to help small-scale farmers.  

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