By KAMAL IYER
The performance of Fiji Sugar Corporation’s mills in the country in terms of extraction of quality sugar from fresh green sugarcane has been well and truly scandalous this season.
Statistics obtained by me reveal the milling efficiency has deteriorated significantly from last season’s performance which was horrendous in itself. It is absolutely clear that the FSC is simply unable to find answers about why its mills are not only grossly under-performing but failing to extract sugar at a time when sugar content in fresh green cane is at an optimum.
It is important to reveal the statistics in terms of tonnes of cane required to make one tonne of sugar (TCTS) as well as the average TCTS so far.
FSC MILL PERFORMANCE – 2010 SEASON
(From start of crush to Monday July 26)
MILL CANE CRUSHED
(TONNES) SUGAR PRODUCED
(TONNES) TCTS(Tonnes of cane required to make one tonne of sugar) LAUTOKA 124,000 8985 13.8 LABASA 112,000 8549 13.1 PENANG 74,000 6852 10.8 RARAWAI 72,000 2769 26
The National Average in terms of the combined performance of the four mills from the start of crush until Monday 26th July is:
TOTAL CANE CRUSHED BY THE 4 MILLS (TONNES) TOTAL SUGAR PRODUCED BY THE 4 MILLS (TONNES) TCTS (Tonnes of cane required to make one tonne of sugar) 382,000 27,155 14.1
Of all the mills the country’s smallest mill – Penang – is the best of the worst performing mills. Penang’s TCTS of 10.8 is high compared to its past record of 1980’s and 1990’s but comparatively fares better than mills which have undergoe millions of dollars worth of upgrade.
In the last fortnight I was in Ba and the abysmal performance of Rarawai mill is the talk of the district. Yesterday the spokesman for FSC, through a report in The Fiji Times, tried to downplay problems faced by farmers and lorry drivers carting cane to the mill. He said farmers harvested their crop without quota. This is a lame excuse.
Farmers have mouths to feed in the form of cane cutters and farm labourers. When there are prolonged frequent breakdowns at the mill, farmers have no choice but to request the idle cane cutters to harvest cane and load it onto lorries. Lorries are only allowed to weigh and dump their cane loads at the mill after FSC issues quotas.
During my two visits to Ba in the last fortnight, no long queues of lorries were visible, except in the mill yard itself. When Rarawai mill used to have smooth crushing operations, lorries laden with cane would occupy the FSC grounds a stone’s throw away from the mill with drivers fully aware their wait would not be long. Such was the intensity of harvesting and delivery of cane in the past.
But now drivers only turn up with their lorries to the mill when they learn that the mill is at last running. But even then their hopes of an early return to their homes are dashed when the mill breaks down while they are waiting. Obviously this gives rise to despair, despondency, frustration and anger amongst farmers, cane cutters and lorry drivers as their livelihood is affected.
In 2009 the four mills crushed a total of 2.2 million tonnes of cane, producing 167,644 tonnes of sugar. The TCTS was 13.1 – 13.1 tonnes of cane was required on an average by the four mills to produce one tonne of sugar.
The worst internationally acceptable TCTS ratio is 10 – 10 tonnes of cane required to produce one tonne of sugar. If the four mills had achieved this TCTS, they would have produced 220,000 tonnes of sugar from 2.2 million tonnes of cane.
Therefore, the mills produced a little over 53,000 tonnes less sugar than what would normally be expected. Based on the FJD$1000 per tonne price Fiji sugar exports fetched last year, the sugar industry lost a massive $53 million in earnings.
And since farmers share 70 percent profit as well as losses in terms of cane price, they lost around $37 million in direct earnings. This meant farmers lost $12-$15 per tonne – lost revenue that was not their fault.
A similar, if not worse trend has emerged this year. So far the four mills have produced less than 11,000 tonnes of sugar less than the should have produced. Based on a TCTS ratio of 10, the mills should have produced 38,200 tonnes of sugar from 382,000 tonnes of cane crushed so far.
The months between June and August are ideal for cane crushing. The sugar content in cane is highest due to favourably cool climate. If FSC cannot extract sugar from quality cane, then the TCTS ratio will be much higher than the current average of 14.1 during the second half of the season.
Past mill performance
It is important to briefly compare the current crushing trend and milling efficiency with official figures of Fiji Islands Bureau of Statistics who have similar information since 1975.
The statistics show that in 1975 the four mills produced 272,000 tonnes of sugar. The TCTS between 1975 and 1998 ranged from a remarkable 7.4 (in 1977) to 9.8 (in 1990). The average TCTCS for this 24 year period was 8.5.
From 1999 to 2007 the TCTS ranged between 11.1 (in 2000) and 8.9 (in 2003). The average TCTS for this 9 year period was 10.08. This clearly shows that milling efficiency is deteriorating.
The legitimate question that arises is how effective has been the $85 million mill upgrade program? And were the mills audited in the last few years before the start of a crushing season to determine their state of preparedness?
A feeling of disenchantment is undoubtedly being felt by the farmers, their families, the cane cutters, lorry operators, lorry drivers, labourers and farm hands. The scandalous performance of the mills is the biggest disincentive for a segment of Fiji’s population who have sacrificed their livelihood and triumphant days to ensure the sugar industry remains the lifeblood of Fiji’s economy for over a 100 years.
And for the last ten years or so, they have continued to faithfully perform their duties to the industry and the nation despite the tumultuous times.
They deserve honest answers and all stakeholders in the sugar industry owe it to them to be transparent and accountable.
Editor's Note: Kamal Iyer is a former print and radio journalist.