Sasta: technology is key for sustainability of sugar sector

Dr Muhammad Kadwa is the President of South African Sugar Technologists’ Association (Sasta).

Dr Muhammad Kadwa is the President of South African Sugar Technologists’ Association (Sasta).

Published Feb 26, 2024


The South African sugar industry is synonymous with the rural economy, and rightly so. The industry operates in deeply rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, where alternative jobs are minimal. The industry, especially the farming element of it, is not seen as being technologically advanced. However, this perception is far from reality.

Farmworkers spraying chemicals to kill weeds and insects in a sugar cane field in the South Coast. Photo: Bongani Mbath Independent Newspapers

In modern-day farming and milling, even in South Africa, technology is the nexus of the operations, thereb, providing the basis for the sustainability of the industry.

A few examples of technology being embraced include highly sophisticated sugar cane breeding facilities, specialised farming implements, load cells in cane and sugar haulage vehicles, voluminous pieces of equipment in sugar mills and embracing energy-efficient processes to reduce the carbon footprint. And the industry knows that continuous improvement is essential.

Enter the South African Sugar Technologists’ Association (Sasta). Established in 1926, Sasta serves as a technical society for people in the industry. It is a not-for-profit organisation and operates under the aegis of the South African Sugar Association, which represents both the sugar cane growing and milling sectors in South Africa.

Currently, Sasta has more than 500 voluntary members, with varying skill set backgrounds, including engineers, scientists, researchers, economists and farmers. They generally have some common goals: to minimise biosecurity risks and investigate innovative ways to improve farming and milling activities of the industry.

The Sugarcane Value Chain Master Plan to 2030 speaks to the re-imagined cane industry strategy, which emphasises innovation. Therefore, as sugar technologists, under the auspices of Sasta, we support the objectives of the master plan.

We do so by promoting the interchange of scientific knowledge of, and the discussion and investigation of, technical problems related to, the production and processing of sugar cane products.

Annually, sugar technologists, in particular, gather in Durban to share knowledge and research/study findings meant to enhance and improve farming and milling operations.

For example, at the Sasta Congress last year was featured a paper presentation on the use of drones to apply chemical ripening agents on sugar cane fields for small-scale growers.

Another example was a paper presented on lessons learnt from investigating sugar cane product diversification opportunities, which helps advance the industry’s diversification agenda towards meeting the master plan’s objectives.

Also what is very important is the exhibitor element at congresses. Exhibitors showcase their latest technologies which are often used in many sugar industries around the world.

Of note, a crucial research and development role is played by the South African Sugarcane Research Institute and the Sugar Milling Research Institute in the sustainability of the local industry and their influence on other global sugar industries.

Moreover, skills development through knowledge transfer is essential to pivot both agricultural and factory efficiencies in order for a much-needed revitalisation of the industry after several challenging years recently.

Challenges experienced over the past decade include drought, collapsing broader infrastructure, financially induced sugar mill closures, large volumes of cheap sugar imports, the implementation of the Health Promotion Levy (commonly known as the sugar tax), the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, floods, civil unrest, substantially above-inflationary cost pressures, and two milling companies being currently under business rescue.

However, the sugar sector remains resilient in the face of these challenges with technology at the heart of it all.

In a nutshell, sugar technologists are playing their part to ensure the successful implementation of the master plan with regards to coming up with clearly defined diversified opportunities through the use of technology and innovative means.

We are thinking outside the box to unlock the true potential of the cane stalk. This year’s congress, on August 13–15, will be an important gathering of bright minds as we assist the industry to grow and become more sustainable.

Dr Muhammad Kadwa is the President of South African Sugar Technologists’ Association (Sasta), an affiliate of the International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists (ISSCT), the oldest and largest organisation of sugar technologists worldwide.