Sugarcane is a species of tall perennial true grasses of the genus Saccharum. It has stout, jointed, fibrous stalks that are rich in sucrose, which accumulates in the stalk internodes. A sugarcane crop is sensitive to the climate, soil type, irrigation, fertilizers, insects, disease control, varieties, and the harvest period. This crop predominantly grows in the tropical and subtropical regions. They grow best in warm, sunny, frost-free weather. It needs fertile, well-drained soil and around 1,500 millimeters of water each year from rain or irrigation supplies. A mature stalk is typically composed of fiber, soluble sugars, non-sugars, and water.
Sugarcane is the world’s largest crop by production quantity. In South Africa, sugar cane farming makes a positive difference to the lives of more than a million people and is a catalyst for economic growth and development. Sugar cane farming is predominant in KwaZulu-Natal, with substantial operations in Mpumalanga, and some sugarcane production in the Eastern Cape. Sugarcane growers annually produce on average 19.9 million tons of sugarcane.
The primary use for sugar cane is to process sugar, which can then be used in producing an infinite number of products. Consequently, the global demand for sugar is the primary driver of sugarcane agriculture. The type of sugar produced by sugar cane is called sucrose. Sucrose, extracted and purified in specialized mill factories, is used as a sweetening agent for food. It is also used as raw material in the food industry or is fermented to produce ethanol. Other than sugar, products derived from sugarcane include ethanol, falernum, molasses, rum, cachaça (a traditional spirit from Brazil), and bagasse.
South African Sugar Industry
The South African sugar industry is one of the world’s leading cost competitive producers of high-quality sugar, producing an average of 2.3 million tons of sugar per annum. This sector contributes an average R12 billion to the economy. Direct employment within the sugar industry is approximately 79 000 jobs, which represents a significant percentage of the total agricultural workforce in South Africa. Indirect employment is estimated at 350 000. The industry is diverse, combining the agricultural activities of sugarcane cultivation with the manufacture of raw and refined sugar, syrups, specialized sugars and a range of by-products
The South African sugar industry makes an important contribution to employment and sustainable socio-economic development, particularly in rural areas. This is built on its agricultural and industrial investments, foreign exchange earnings, labor intensity, and linkages with major suppliers, support industries, and customers.
Sugarcane industry combines the agricultural activities of growing sugarcane with the industrial factory production of raw and refined sugar and makes a significant contribution to the national economy. It requires the partnership between growers and millers which forms the basis of the industry’s structure in South Africa.
Processing of the sugarcane involves cutting the cane when it was fully ripe, releasing cane juice, and immediately subjecting it to crushing in sugar mills.
Sugarcane are planted in furrows at either horizontal or at 45-degree angles. After they are planted, they are covered with a light layer of soil. The crops mature over the span of 9 to 24 months. Harvesting normally takes place when rainfall is at a minimum. Sugarcane harvesting is a staple industry in many countries, including South Africa. It is a complex process that involves careful cutting and handling procedures to maintain high sugar content and cane quality. The cutting of stalks with includes the use of machete-type knives, also known as the cutlass. This method is very labor-intensive and cutters were subjected to stooping in order to cut canes at the lower length desired for optimal sugarcane harvest. The process of cutting canes must be done with care to ensure optimal quality of the cane’s sugar content.
Once inside the sugar mill, rollers are used to crush the canes, extracting juice comprising 10 to 20 percent sucrose. The juice then undergoes a process of removing impurities from the sugar and is crystallized in a centrifuge, where it is processed into refined white sugar.