Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) is one of the many crops that Liberians arguably see insignificant. But the semi- perennial crop, which is grown in tropical and subtropical regions, has huge value-added potentials that many farmers in Liberia may not be aware of.
In terms of acreage and tonnage, Brazil, India, and China are the world’s top producing countries of sugarcane. The three countries account for 65% of the world figure, HarvestChoice report.
However, Africa only grows about 5% of the world’s production, 30% of which comes from East Africa. South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland and Kenya remain Africa leading producers, HarvestChoice reports.
Sugarcane grows up to 5 meters in height and five centimeters in diameter. Some products that are made from the crop include sucrose, blackstrap molasses, bagasse, ethanol, electricity among others.
Sucrose, a value added product of sugarcane, is used as a sweetening agent for foods and in the manufacture of cakes, candies, preservatives, soft drinks, alcohol, etc.
Blackstrap molasses is mainly used as feed but can also be sold as syrup, to flavor rum and others foods or as an additive for ethyl alcohol
Bagasse. while commonly burned as fuel for the mills, could be used as a feed-stock for ethanol production. And in some countries sugar and ethanol plants produce electricity by burning bagasse and cane straw in boilers to produce steam that generates power.
Despite the numerous value-added potentials of the crop, sugarcane market in Liberia has been insignificant for decades. For years, sugarcane juice (cane juice) has been the only value added product of the crop that has been sold on the Liberian market. Also, during its harvest season, surplus sugarcane stalks flood the Liberian market and are often consumed as appetizer or dessert by some Liberians.
William Hull, who recently started growing sugarcane on a portion of his ten acres of land in Upper Careysburg, Montserrado County, is one of the few who believe that Liberia can tap into the value chain potential of sugarcane.
“I am an artist; I design traffic signs that you see along the streets and through that I have been surviving. But growing sugarcane came first as an encouragement from a friend, who said that we should produce for the few liquor companies in Liberia. But I quickly realized that those guys [entrepreneurs of liquor companies] needed a regular supplier, and we were not in the position to be one. Knowing of other value added products of sugarcane, I decided to grow the [crop] with a dream of producing brown sugar, which is cheaper than crystal sugar,” said Hull.
In a chat while touring his facility, Hull added that limited value chain knowledge about sugarcane could be a driven factor of limited attention given to the crop. He also mentioned limited labor force, high interest rate of bank loans, needed attention from government and lack of industrial machineries as other factors that have been hampering the growth of the sector.
“Another challenge is finding people to help you harvest your cane. Here, the community people charge you a lot of money to harvest your sugarcane. How much money do I get from sugarcane? We do not make much. Getting harvested sugarcane to the mill is another challenge here. There are many sugarcane growers in this area who cannot transport their harvested sugarcane to the mill. Sometimes, I help them with my truck to transport their sugarcane to the mill.
It is my dream to produce brown sugar, which is a product from sugarcane. Brown sugar is cheaper than the crystal sugar but accessing the brown sugar machine is the problem. The machine cost about $US75, 000. I can provide collateral if the banks will need it, but what I cannot take is the banks high interest rates and three months duration of payment.
If the government can bring in equipment, machines and set up a system where farmers will access machines, though not free of charge, I think that will help us. Currently, farmers cannot afford these big machines. I hope that the government will look into such direction of development,” Hull added