President Mnangagwa last Saturday launched the much awaited Kilimanjaro Sugarcane project that is being spearheaded by Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed sugar producers Tongaat Hulett Limited. The US$40 million project will culminate in the development of 4 000 hectares of land under sugarcane. Our Business Writer Ishemunyoro Chingwere (IM) took advantage of the launch and engaged the sugar processor’s chief executive officer Gavin Hudson (GH) on a number of issues regarding the project and the sugar processor’s future plans. The following are excerpts of the interview:
IM: What does this programme mean to this country in terms of economic value?
GH: This is a joint community initiative. So for us this is the growth of the sugar industry, this is growth of the local Chiredzi and Masvingo province in terms of farming.
IM: The President talked about the 99-year-lease agreement and invited you to apply. What’s your take on the security that the lease gives you as you plan your investment?
GH: We have applied for our 99-year lease agreement with the Government and we are excited that we can have the opportunity to attain a 99-year lease and to work with Government into the future. I think on security the takeaway is that this is the rule of the land in Zimbabwe and we support that because we want to do business in Zimbabwe. We want to do business with Zimbabweans.
IM: Government is quite passionate about local content and the need to support local businesses. What does Tongaat Hulett bring to Zimbabwe by way of supporting local businesses?
GH: One point we made when we did Kilimanjaro is that we used local content for everything. We didn’t bring in anyone from outside to do it. We used local contractors, local people and it’s for the local people and its expansion of agriculture and sugarcane (industry locally).
This is a first phase and we think there is huge opportunities (in Zimbabwe) as discussed with the President this morning (last Saturday) around diversified crops . . . we are thinking about growing winter crops. The President made a comment that he would like this province and certainly the lowveld to be the breadbasket or to be the foodbasket of Zimbabwe and we support that vision.
IM: You speak of diversifying into other programmes and you are already into cattle ranching?
GH: We have cattle farming. We have a herd of 5 500 give or take at the moment here and we are feeding close to 8 000 herd of cattle so we are supporting the local farmers where we can and when we have feedstock. We have a clear plan on how we want to expand our opportunities in Zimbabwe and that includes cattle farming. We can feed 25 000 cattle in our feedstocks at the moment, we underutilised that capability.
We have winter maize crop and we would like to expand the winter maize crop and are also thinking of beans, sugar bean and offcrop season crops in our sugarcane. So we are thinking about diversifying, using the land, using our opportunity with water.
IM: What’s your current foothold and where would you want to see yourselves?
GH: We are looking at expanding our cattle herd and the feeding opportunity of our herd.
Once we are in full production with Kilimanjaro, which increases the total consumption of sugarcane in the region, we will be able to expand our ethanol capacity. Currently we are doing about 40 million litres of ethanol a year and we would like to take it to 60 million.
IM: In terms of production figures for sugarcane and you rightfully say this is a first phase of expansion, what are you looking at in terms of envisaged production?
GH: It’s determined by the amount of water (for irrigation) we can secure and obviously working with the Honourable (Lands, Agriculture, Water and Rural Resettlement Minister Perrance Shiri)to understand the capacity of the water and to understand how much land we can have access to.
So we have great ideas, I have mentioned a few of them. The President has invited me to bring a plan and present this to him in the near future and his cabinet.
IM: There are reports that Tongaat are moving out of cane production in South Africa, what’s happening there?
GH: No. We are not moving out, what we have done in South Africa is very similar (with what is happening in Zimbabwe). In actual fact we realised that in South Africa our local farmers were better at farming and what we have done is we have empowered the local indigenous farmers to run our estates on our behalf.
IM: So you then come up as up takers of the cane?
GH: Well, we are a miller so here we farm and we mill at the same time and in South Africa we have smaller farmers but we believe we can empower the communities in which we work. So our objective is about creating an expanded crop.