March 23, 2005
One of Malawi’s biggest exports is sugar. Most of it is grown in the Shire Valley. We have visited this area several times, but on Sunday when we visited the St. Andrew’s CCAP Church on the Illovo Sugar Estate, we learned much more about this product and how it is produced.
Sugar cane has been grown in Malawi for decades. It requires very hot weather and lots of water. The Shire Valley has both. Temperatures most days are well in excess of 95 degrees, and the Shire River provides an abundant source of water for irrigating the fields. The plantation that we visited has over 64,000 acres of sugar cane planted. We drove for miles and miles and saw nothing but fields of sugar cane.
Illovo employs almost 10,000 people to run the operation. There are truck drivers, cane cutters, mechanics, secretaries, marketing experts, purchasing agents, hydrologists, engineers, chemists, etc. etc. Housing is provided for most of them. The cane cutters have small homes grouped closely together. Upper level managers live in spacious air conditioned homes that are surrounded by beautiful gardens. There is a Sports Club and restaurant for them as well. A hospital is run by the company too. There are schools on the property, and several churches. It is a huge operation.
The sugar cane itself is planted/replanted every 8 to 15 years in huge fields. It is watered, fertilized and sprayed with insecticides by crop duster planes. In some countries, burning the fields prior to harvest has been outlawed because of pollution, but that is not the case in Malawi. Illovo employees told us that the burning makes it easier to harvest and gets rid of snakes in the fields. The cane is harvested by hand and then mechanically loaded into specialized trailers and hauled to the factory.
The sugar processing plant can be seen from great distances belching smoke from its tall chimneys. Here the cane is ground and processed (I will write more about how this is done after we tour the plant in June) and raw sugar is produced and packaged in 50 kilo bags. It is stored in “mountains” covered by tarps next to the factory. Flatbed trucks are loaded and take the sugar to Durban, South Africa, the nearest port. It is then shipped all over the world.
As a result of all the sugar production here, Malawians love sugar. It is cheap, only about 55 cents a kilo. Most Malawians put three big teaspoons into a mug of tea. Children can be seen chewing foot long pieces of cane in urban and rural areas alike. The love of sugar and things sweet seems to be universal.
I have seen cane fields before, but I never realized how much was involved in getting those tiny white cubes into my kitchen to sweeten our lives.