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Mauritius's sugar cane growers bend but don't break

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Media captionSugar prices have fallen and fluctuated wildly in the last few years

As we drive around the island of Mauritius, I suddenly realise we've driven a few kilometres and I've seen nothing but sugar cane. Sugar cane is everywhere in Mauritius.

The tall green plants cover a third of this Indian Ocean island which is roughly the same size as Luxembourg. Sometimes the stalks stand up straight, and at other times, they slant - a built in resistance for survival on a windswept island.

The resilience of the plant is itself somewhat reflective of the country at large and of the sugar industry.

Ever since the Dutch introduced the plant in 1639, the main end product has always been sugar. But more recently a distinction has arisen between the sugar industry, and the "sugar cane industry", the latter offering tantalising new possibilities.

Sugar rush

As I stand in the middle the Omnicane plant in L'Escalier on the south of the island it soon becomes obvious that this is a sophisticated operation. Huge trucks filled with sugar cane arrive at the plant around the clock. The chief executive, Jacques D'Unienville, tells me they never have to travel more than 40 km to pick up the cane.

Within minutes of arrival, the canes have been unloaded, they are then cut into smaller sizes, and soon enough they're being crushed and sugar is being extracted. Employees stare at computer screens monitoring the performance of the equipment. The process from sugar cane to sugar takes less than 24 hours.

Image caption One of Omnicane's main products is sugar-based ethanol
Image caption Omnicane is held up internationally as a model of versatility
Image caption Raw and refined sugars offer a myriad of product options

But it's the production of by-products which make previous practices look medieval.

"We used to have raw sugar, we [now] have refined which is direct consumption refined sugar, [with] some value addition.

"Out of the fibres, we produce electricity. Our companies produce about 30% of the national grid requirements," says Jacques D'Unienville.

Energy boost

Bagasse, as the left-over husks are known, is burned to generate power. Omnicane and the three other big sugar companies on the island are net contributors of electricity to the national grid.

Image caption Bagasse is the raw husks of the sugar cane, chopped and squeezed ready for burning

Other by-products such as molasses get distilled into ethanol. Carbon dioxide, generated during the fermentation process, goes into fizzy drinks, and the process even produces fertiliser which goes back onto the sugar cane plantations.

Hence the distinction between a sugar industry and a sugar cane industry. One merely produces sugar, while the other uses all of the sugar cane.

Jacques D'Unienville speaks proudly about going to conferences abroad, his plant in little old Mauritius being held up as an example of the way things should be done. The model is now being exported to other countries on mainland Africa.

Tough times

Before we go into the refining area, we go through a ritual cleansing, putting on white lab coats, helmets, and shoe covers. If the sugar is going to end up in the breakfast cereals and teas of European consumers, then the hygiene standards have to be exacting, we're told.

But the sugar industry isn't what it used to be. Prices have fallen and fluctuated wildly in the last few years, and competition is fierce.

From 2017, quotas on producing sugar within the European Union will be lifted, and EU countries are likely to compete for more of the market, putting pressure on growers in the rest of the world.

I meet Jean Noel Humbert, the chief executive of the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate at their offices in the capital, Port Louis. Even though the financial industry contributes more to the country's GDP, sugar cane remains important to the island. It keeps it green, which tourists love, and it also prevents soil erosion. Jean Noel has seen the industry evolve over three decades.

The reason there are only four big sugar cane companies is due to consolidation.

"There is now excess sugar, surplus sugar in the EU market, and this is likely to stay for a few years with us.

"Therefore we've changed from a sellers' market to a buyers' market. And now with prices as low as 500 euros per tonne we are suffering a lot," he says.

Image caption Anil Ghuburrun doesn't expect his son to continue farming sugar cane

Smallholders struggle

Jean Noel Humbert says the main reason the industry has been able to survive is because of value addition.

After the abolition of slavery, Mauritius became dominated by thousands of smallholder farmers. But these kinds of growers are an endangered bunch.

Outside Jean Noel's office I meet Anil Ghuburrun, who has come to see about payment for his sugar cane. A few days later he takes me to his smallholder farm in Flacq, near the island's east coast. The land is hilly and full of rocks.

Other plants grow in the area, cabbages, pineapples. The land is clearly fertile. However the stony ground means the harvest can only be done manually.

Anil began farming the land with his father at age 18, but the 125 acres he began with have diminished over time.

"Day by day I sold [parts of my land] because it was very difficult to [farm] all the land because of a lack of labour: cutting and loading, doing all the work in the field."

He speaks with pride about his father being able to send his brother to study law abroad on a planter's income. But when I ask him whether his own 25 year old son who is an engineer in India would be interested in sugar cane, he bellows with laughter and says, "No, he's not interested."

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