Global Development Institute Blog

By Professor Phil Woodhouse, Global Development Institute 

Across southern Africa governments watch anxiously for signs that the forecast rains will arrive to break the 2015/16 drought that has devastated the region’s economy and left 40 million people, including 40% of the rural population in Malawi and Zimbabwe, facing food shortages that are set to peak next month. Even South Africa, normally a food exporter, is due to import 3.5 million tons of food in the coming months. The crisis throws into sharp relief the region’s need to drought-proof its agriculture, but also increases scrutiny on current investment into irrigation, which has been dominated by one crop: sugar cane.

2015-16-drought-has-left-40-million-people-across-southern-africa-facing-food-shortagesThe sugar industry in southern Africa has increased its output by two-thirds and the (irrigated) land it cultivates by almost 50% over the past 20 years. During this time, three South African companies have expanded their operations across the region where they now account for over 90% of sugar output. In a region where food production is vulnerable to drought, large-scale corporate control of land and water to produce a crop whose consumption is increasingly criticised on health grounds highlights the contradictory forces at work in contemporary African agriculture. An unprecedented collection of papers published this month by the Journal of Southern African Studies explores the dynamics of sugar cane production in seven countries in southern Africa and provides insight into the logic that drives the corporations, governments and local communities involved.

While the collection bears out the specificity of different national contexts, some key factors stand out. First, the sugar industry offers to many African governments a tangible opportunity to develop modern agriculture and sophisticated industrial processing to deliver globally competitive products such as sugar and ethanol. Evidence from these studies questions the modernity and productivity credentials of sugar production in southern Africa, as elsewhere, not least in some of its labour practices. However, in pursuit of agricultural and industrial goals, governments make land and water available through special planning zones, protect their sugar markets from foreign imports and endeavour to build a constituency of support among rural communities through ‘outgrower’ schemes.

Second, the historical context is important. The rapid expansion of South Africa’s sugar companies across the region was possible by the liberation of South Africa’s businesses from the constraints of apartheid coupled with the budgetary pressure on neighbouring governments to divest themselves of loss-making sugar plantations. Yet such contexts change. The European Union market to which many southern African countries had privileged access has been reformed in the past decade and the South African sugar companies themselves are now the object of takeovers, including by European sugar refiners.

Against this shifting backdrop of international markets and corporate investment in agriculture, stability may seem a problematic concept. Yet, for southern African governments and rural land users perhaps the key trade-off has been between the stability and steady growth of demand for sugar and the volatility of markets for many alternative (food) crops. This year’s drought and the prospect of changing rainfall patterns associated with climate change suggest this trade-off may need further scrutiny. Sugar cane is a highly water-intensive crop requiring ten months or more of growth before harvest. Even if food is to be imported with cash earned from sugar exports, it is likely to be a very inefficient use of water if irrigation is to underpin the region’s food security. Yet, as these studies show, sugar production is a manifestation of many intersecting interests which reflect the historical and economic context of the different countries in southern Africa, as well as their contemporary political and economic dynamics. Efforts to bring about change must rest on an understanding of each local context.