Small-scale grower, Nomsa Mkhize with SA Cane growers’ Agriculture Business Advisor for the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands region in her field of N12 variety seedcane which will not only improve her yields but sustain the viability of her 0.8ha operation.
Small-scale grower, Nomsa Mkhize with SA Cane growers’ Agriculture Business Advisor for the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands region in her field of N12 variety seedcane which will not only improve her yields but sustain the viability of her 0.8ha operation.

Good news for KZN sugar cane growers

By Gcwalisile Khanyile Time of article published May 27, 2021

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DURBAN - KwaZulu-Natal sugar cane growers have found a new revenue stream, through the manufacturing of sustainable aviation fuel from sugar cane.

This was revealed by a joint study, titled The Viability of South African Sugar Cane as Feedstock for Sustainable Aviation Fuel Product.

Rex Talmage, chairperson of the SA Canegrowers Association, said the findings of the study came at a time when the sugar industry was on its knees as a result of plunging world sugar prices.

He said they faced the challenges of weak protection against cheap imports and a major drop in local demand for sugar due to the introduction of the sugar tax (or Health Promotion Levy) in 2018.

Talmage said the move to sustainable aviation fuel would shield local farmers from the need to export sugar to the oversupplied global market, which was often at a loss.

“By diverting 50% of the 19 million tons of cane produced by growers each year towards ethanol production, the industry could produce approximately 700 million litres of low-carbon ethanol annually for local or international biofuel markets,” Talmage said.

He added that the ethanol could then be converted into 433 million litres of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for the aviation industry.

Talmage said this would be done through local refineries adapted to produce jet fuel via the Alcohol-to-Jet (ATJ) pathway, or internationally by existing ATJ producers. He added that 94.32% of the cane growers that delivered cane actively were in KZN.

“It is … common knowledge that the demand for aviation fuel far outstrips the supply … This trend is likely to continue into the future as numerous governments in the EU, Asia and America impose regulations,” he said.

He said the study calculated that South African demand for ethanol fuel alone could be approximately 2.4 billion litres annually, with 75% (1.8 billion litres, equalling the entire OR Tambo International Airport supply at 50% biofuel blend) from aviation. The study “included exploring potential incentives, subsidies, and trading rights mechanisms as well as the adoption of standards, codes of conduct and other voluntary instruments governing participation in this sector. We look forward to continuing working with government and industry partners to formulate concrete proposals to take this matter forward”.

According to the study, globally-offtake agreements currently account for 6 billion litres of SAF, and the industry is looking for additional sustainable feedstock options to increase supply and meet demand.

“Leading international airlines … have both commitments to achieve net-zero GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions in the next decade and to purchase SAF," Talmage said.

He said there were currently 21 000 black small-scale growers, 65 000 farmworkers in the industry, which also created 270 000 indirect jobs and supported a million livelihoods.

The study was presented to the Value Chain Diversification Task Team established under the Sugar Industry Value Chain Master plan, aimed at developing a medium- to long-term strategy for the diversification of the sugar cane value chain.

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