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September 09, 2009

Sugar prices tempt small-scale Swazi farmers away from food crops

Swaziland's small-scale farmers are succumbing to the temptation of soaring sugar prices, cultivating cane at the expense of edible crops in the food-stressed country.

Raw sugar prices have reached a 28-year high, driven by fears that demand will outstrip supply on the back of a poor 2008/09 crop in India, with another below average harvest expected, and Brazil's increasing use of sugar cane to manufacture ethanol for biofuel.

Observers are divided on the merits of cash crops in favour of subsistence food production, which are challenging long-held views about food security.

"It is simplistic to say that cultivating export crops robs starving people of food here at home. In fact, that's wrong," said Amos Ndwandwe, an agricultural extension officer in the eastern Lubombo region. This has been Swaziland's main cane-growing area for generations.

Tammy Dlamini, a programme officer at the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which in recent years has provided food assistance to more than 60 percent of the country's roughly one million people, agreed.

"For us, food security is not just production; our position is that people are going hungry - not because there isn't food production, but because they don't have enough money to purchase food."

The International Sugar Organization expects sugar prices to rise 76 percent in 2009, making it an attractive proposition for small farmers to cultivate, as it will yield far higher profits than cereal or vegetable crops, whose excess after household consumption is sold at local markets to obtain cash.

A household survey by the WFP and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture, found that farming families depended on local shops for basic foodstuffs. However, in a country where the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has estimated that two out of three people live in chronic poverty, the necessary cash is not always available.

Food security is not just production; our position is that people are going hungry - not because there isn't food production, but because they don't have enough money to purchase food "Food is in the shops - Swazis purchase over 70 percent of what they eat [rather than growing it]. [Being] next to South Africa [which exports food] means that on a national level there is no food shortage; on a household level we experience shortages due to poverty," Dlamini said.

"Job losses, not crop losses due to bad weather, have had the biggest impact on food security this year [2009]; more than anything, joblessness hinders food security."

Sugar, colloquially known as "Swazi gold", has been the top export for decades. "In Swaziland there has been some debate on how much arable land should be made available to growing feedstocks for ethanol, because that would be coming at the expense of such crops as maize, which is the staple crop," said Michael Matsebula, CEO of the Swaziland Sugar Association.

"At the end of the day it is a question of relative prices, so if an ordinary household in the rural areas can get more money producing cassava that will go into ethanol production, as opposed to maize for consumption purposes, then they will go for cassava. This is where it is important for government to come in with support policies so it is attractive to grow maize," Matsebula said.

African sugar cultivation has been increasing: from 2004 to 2007 production averaged 9.63 million tons, or 6.4 percent of world production; exports reached 3.38 million tons, or 7 percent of world exports, making the continent's sugar sales higher than its portion of world production.

"Africa is punching above its weight when it comes to global sugar trading interactions," Matsebula told an International Sugar Conference in Luxor, Egypt, in March. The continent's share of global consumption rose from 3.9 percent in 2000 to 4.9 percent by 2007.

The combined effects of India's anticipated poor harvest and bad weather in Brazil are expected to place a higher premium on African sugar. "The net income that rural households can make from sugar cane at this point of time is still higher than any other crop," Matsebula noted.

Small-scale farmers have been encouraged to form cooperatives. "There is investment going on. One of the mills has actually put in a lot of money to expand its production capacity so it takes cane grown in the Lower Usuthu Irrigation Scheme," he said of a government initiative to divert water from a major river for use by farmer cooperatives.

Although Swaziland's income from sugar exports rose last year, the amount of land devoted to cane cultivation diminished. "We are still encouraging farmers to form cooperatives, and they are doing that," Matsebula said.

"There are challenges of course. Some of the small farmers are finding it difficult to live within the constitutions of the associations, so there is a need for education to ensure there are no squabbles that lead to the farmers associations breaking up," he said, referring to land-use arguments and chieftaincy disputes, where one chief claims land being used by a cooperative formed under a neighbouring chief.

WFP's Dlamini said, "We must ask who is being targeted with the sugar cane initiatives? It is not always the poorest in the community who benefit. The poor do not have the land to contribute to a cooperative, they are illiterate and can't deal with documents and agreements, they cannot afford joining fees. So an educational component must enter into it. From a food security point of view, who are these schemes targeting?"


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