The sugar rush in south­ern Africa

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Analysis - Ian Scoones

frag­ile. In 2017 pref­er­en­tial trade ac­cess ceases, and with this the huge “ad­just­ment” pay­ments that some south­ern African coun­tries and sugar cor­po­rates have re­ceived as aid.

Nev­er­the­less the sugar gi­ants, mostly cen­tred on three South Africa-based com­pa­nies — Illovo, Ton­gaat Hulett and TSB — as well as new en­trants, are still eye­ing up cheap land, good soils and wa­ter re­sources for new ven­tures.

With these ma­jor changes un­der­way it is a good mo­ment to re­view the political econ­omy of sugar in south­ern Africa. This is what a new open ac­cess spe­cial is­sue of the Jour­nal of South­ern African Stud­ies does. There are nine pa­pers, with case stud­ies from seven coun­tries across the re­gion, and a valu­able com­par­a­tive over­view of pat­terns of ac­cu­mu­la­tion in dif­fer­ent op­er­a­tions.

The is­sue ar­gues that the re­gion’s sugar in­dus­try pro­vides a use­ful lens through which to un­der­stand cur­rent dy­nam­ics of cor­po­rate cap­i­tal and agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion in Africa.

The pa­pers high­light the rapid con­cen­tra­tion of cor­po­rate con­trol over the past decade, but also the very di­verse out­comes across the cases. Cap­i­tal does not op­er­ate in a uni­form way, and lo­cal con­texts, re­sis­tances and strug­gles, and wider political econ­omy make a big dif­fer­ence.

Tak­ing the com­pany Illovo (now owned by As­so­ci­ated Bri­tish Foods), Alex Dubb shows in his paper how it gains high prof­its in Malawi due to favourable mar­ket con­di­tions (no­tably pref­er­en­tial trade ac­cess and pro­tected do­mes­tic mar­kets) and high pro­duc­tiv­ity (com­bin­ing cheap field labour, land and wa­ter with cap­i­tal-in­ten­sive milling).

By con­trast, Mozam­bi­can prof­its come ex­clu­sively from favourable mar­ket con­di­tions, while prof­its in Tan­za­nia, Swazi­land and es­pe­cially Zam­bia are due to par­tic­u­larly high lev­els of pro­duc­tiv­ity.

South Africa, Illovo’s coun­try of ori­gin, re­ceives low prof­its, mak­ing ex­pan­sion across the re­gion es­sen­tial for com­mer­cial suc­cess.

Value re­la­tions, at the heart of political econ­omy, are core to un­der­stand­ing ac­cu­mu­la­tion through sugar, Dubb ar­gues. As com­pa­nies seek to ex­pand their op­er­a­tions, the search for cheap land, wa­ter and labour con­tin­ues.

As re­ports from Malawi and Tan­za­nia cau­tion, at­tempts at ex­pan­sion of sugar land through grand devel­op­ment schemes — such as the Green Belt in Malawi or SAGCOT in Tan­za­nia — may re­sult in elite cap­ture and ex­clu­sions of poorer peo­ple, even when ‘out­grower’ ap­proaches are ad­vo­cated.

A cen­tral theme of the pa­pers is an ex­am­i­na­tion of the di­verse pat­terns of “out­grower” sugar cane pro­duc­tion. This is mas­sively dif­fer­ent in South Africa, Zam­bia, Zim­babwe or Swazi­land for ex­am­ple, where starkly dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ships be­tween the es­tate and mill and small­holder out­grow­ers (of dif­fer­ent scales, and with dif­fer­ent in­volve­ment in di­rect pro­duc­tion) ap­ply.

While of­ten pre­sented as the “in­clu­sive busi­ness” so­lu­tion to cor­po­rate en­gage­ment with small­hold­ers, it is clear that there is no sin­gle model, and re­la­tions be­tween cor­po­rate cap­i­tal, states and lo­cal pro­duc­ers varies mas­sively.

How then should we un­der­stand sugar in south­ern Africa? Is the sugar in­dus­try part of a new de­vel­op­men­tal frontier in the re­gion, trans­form­ing in­vest­ment, mar­ket op­por­tu­ni­ties and liveli­hoods with a “win-win” model, cen­tred on link­ing core agroin­dus­trial in­vest­ments with out­grow­ers, as the in­dus­try and other ad­vo­cates claim?

Or is it a preda­tory form of cap­i­tal, backed by elites and in­ter­na­tional fi­nance, where pro­duc­tion and mar­ket risks are trans­ferred to vul­ner­a­ble small­hold­ers and es­tate labour; where land and wa­ter re­sources are ‘grabbed’; where a colo­nial model of ex­ploita­tive es­tate pro­duc­tion is at the cen­tre, and prof­its are ac­cu­mu­lated through mo­nop­oly power?

The ex­pe­ri­ence in south­ern Africa sug­gests that these stereo­types rarely ap­ply. While the logic of cap­i­tal re­sults in a re­lent­less pur­suit of profit, state agency and na­tional political-eco­nomic con­text in­flu­ence out­comes, as do lo­cal con­di­tions.

Lo­cal ne­go­ti­a­tions, re­sis­tances, and ac­com­mo­da­tions mat­ter. The re­sult is di­verse pat­terns of pro­duc­tion and profit, to­gether with dif­fer­ent liveli­hood out­comes for very dif­fer­ent types of “out­grower”, and quite dif­fer­ent im­pli­ca­tions for dif­fer­ent groups of es­tate labour, as shown for Xi­na­vane in Mozam­bique, both in terms of gen­der re­la­tions and health and well­be­ing.

With the va­garies of the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket dom­i­nat­ing, and the chang­ing for­tunes of large cor­po­rate agribusi­ness cap­i­tal in the re­gion so deeply in­ter­twined with this, we can­not pre­dict whether the long-established cor­po­ra­tion-state-out­grower re­la­tion­ship will per­sist. But for now, in all its va­ri­ety and dif­fer­ing political di­men­sions, this re­la­tion­ship dom­i­nates the south­ern African sugar sec­tor, and is cen­tral to un­der­stand­ing its con­tem­po­rary political econ­omy. Ian Scoones is a Bri­tish pro­fes­sor of devel­op­ment stud­ies and au­thor of the book

A sug­ar­cane plan­ta­tion at Hippo Val­ley (left), and a Ton­gaat Hulett worker pro­cess­ing sugar at the mill in this wire pic­ture

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