AfricaLive: Please give our readers an introduction to yourself and what makes up the DNA of Royal Eswatini Sugar.
Nick Jackson: I grew up in the UK and started my work life at Tate & Lyle in London before moving to Scotland. I then went to Australia, the Middle East and later the Caribbean, before coming to Eswatini in 2009 to assume the role of the Managing Director of the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation as it then was before it was rebranded to the Royal Eswatini Sugar Corporation in 2020.
Our company sits on a very small kingdom that happens to be the only absolute monarchy left in Africa and that can be very special. I would refer to us as a blue-chip company tucked away in a tiny kingdom in Southern Africa which surprises people a lot.
We are a low-cost producer with a futuristic vision and lots of innovation. Sustainability is big for us and we are currently pushing drip irrigation as a sustainable strategy. We are the single biggest drip-irrigated cane sugar farm in the world with over 15,000 hectares under drip. We aim to add 800 more hectares to that tally, with 300 of those being converted from other irrigation regimes and 500 being virgin land that will be going under cane.
Drip irrigation is the most economical irrigation method because water is not lost due to evaporation. The water drops also go straight to the roots which see us get good yield even in areas with lower quality soil. The method also suits our fixed cost operation because increasing our units drives our costs of production down. Our strategy to become more successful and effective by either increasing the acreage of land under cane or finding new ways to boost productivity. Drip irrigation also enables us to have GPS guided drips with our tractors fitted with GPS guidance technology.
Our activities involve methods such as cane burning during harvest times. People think cane is burnt to rid the farm of snakes but we do it to get rid of the excess leaves so that cane cutters can have an easier time. Our cane is hand-cut, with an experienced worker cutting about 15 tons a day. Cane burning makes workers get through more cane in a day than they would otherwise, which helps them earn even more.
Hand cutting could become an obsolete job in the future though as we aim to embrace modern cutting methods as they have in places like Australia. We do plan to keep some hand cutters though to ensure people in local communities earn a wage. We won’t ourselves do away with the jobs, they will naturally be phased out as the nation develops and higher-paying jobs become available.
AfricaLive: The fourth industrial revolution is already shaping the future of agribusiness on the African continent. Your mechanisation ambitions imply that technology and innovation will be at the heart of your development plans, is that correct?
Nick Jackson: Yes, that can be underlined by our recent acquisition of a new ERP system by SAP which replaced an old one that was no longer useful. We remarkably managed to go 100% SAP across all our divisions including agriculture, right through to medical services. This feat impressed SAP a lot and they are now working with us to ensure our systems are smooth running. The system has helped sort out our cane logistics issues which in turn has improved operations across the whole factory.
AfricaLive: As you look to the future, what kind of impact would you like to have on the agricultural sector and the overall development of Eswatini?
Nick Jackson: We have a short to medium term strategy that was meant to help us drive down unit costs. Unit cost reduction was to be achieved through an initiative that we dubbed Simama 20-20. The success of that drive has seen us introduce a new Simama 20-25 plan which aims to drive down costs by a further 20%. The key here is to have all our employees engaged so that they act in ways that will help us reduce that number.
As a company, we do well to aggregate our cane with outgrower cane to produce sugar and molasses for the sugar association. We buy back the molasses and put that into our plant to produce portable ethanol. We then sell the ethanol to industries that use alcohol as part of their process. Soon we will be producing fuel ethanol which could become about half of our output.
We should be able to serve the local market as well as the Zimbabwe and South Africa markets once we get everything ready. In about 2 years, we intend to begin to produce alcoholic drinks at retail level. Our zeal to diversify our products has driven us to set an ambition to become the top rum producer in Africa with high quality aged rum.
Our operation could thrive even more because of the common Southern African market (SACU) that allows Eswatini companies to compete in the region. It will be an uphill battle to fend off competition from more established South African names, but we are confident in our abilities. We will also take advantage of the AfCFTA to trade more with countries like Kenya which are outside the region.
Eswatini will also benefit from our ambitions of creating a big bioplastic operation that will see us produce bioplastics. We will start by producing polylactic acid which is always a precursor for the production of bioplastics. Bioplastic production opens the door for the making of all kinds of great products such as phone casings, dashboard covers, coffee cup finishes etc. The test for us is to transcend sugar production and see what high-value goods we can produce.
We also have a keen eye for developing our communities. Back in the 1980s, lots of communities were uprooted from their original homes to pave way for the huge commercial plantations. We feel it is incumbent on us to give back to communities that gave up a lot for us. One of the ways we do this is through a youth entrepreneurship programme that encourages youth to put forward their business ideas. We partner with a local organisation known as Junior Achievement Eswatini to identify the top 30 candidates that we can help become successful entrepreneurs. We structure it in a competitive way to ensure that we get the top four whom we source capital funding for.
We have seen some graduates of the programme become successful and some have even become our suppliers. We also have a water supply initiative going that has seen the construction of many boreholes and a leadership programme done in partnership with the University of Stellenbosch and our Leadership Academy.
AfricaLive: The pandemic has exposed the need for companies to either create strong local value chains and local markets or step up in terms of value addition. What do you believe are the barriers to moving African agriculture up the value chain?
Nick Jackson: Our problems have more to do with logistics than production at the moment. Hiccups at the borders cause unnecessary delays that become a nightmare if you are shipping perishable products. In our case, we are fortunate that sugar doesn’t go bad but we would still like to see a change.
There is also the issue of protectionism amongst countries and the lack of trade corridors across regions. We find ourselves in situations where it is cheaper and more accessible to ship products to China than it is to Central Ethiopia or Nigeria . Until traders have more access to markets across the continent, increased intra-African trade will remain an ambition.
AfricaLive: Do you believe the industry needs to change so that environmental sustainability can take root?
Nick Jackson: I would say yes and no.
No, because we have managed the land we have sustainably since the 1980s. Most of our practices are already carbon neutral.
Yes because we are also involved in the production of ethanol which produces a very nasty spillage. We have partnered with a company known as Enviro Applied Products to clean the spillage and turn it into safe liquid fertiliser. Maybe more can be done to ensure we produce ethanol in an even more sustainable way.
Sustainability I believe also goes into our management of water. With unreliable rainfalls at times, we have had to invest in proper water management, something that should be emulated throughout the continent. There is room for improvement with how we manage our water as well.
AfricaLive: How confident are you about the future of the company, the sector and the country?
Nick Jackson: The sugar industry will continue reaching new highs and our company I believe will also do the same. We have had the misfortune of losing a few people in the company but I trust the people we have onboard. We have lots of talent within our ranks and we should even be more effective as we go along. The company prospects are huge, and there is so much to love about this kingdom.