In an old stone warehouse in Port Louis, mountains of sacks filled with sugar are piled high. Some are from Thailand, some are from India and others, containing the best quality product, are from Mauritius itself.
It might seem strange that Mauritius — once known as a sugar plantation — should be importing sugar at all. Yet in the old days after independence, when exports were booming and sugar was a mainstay of the economy, almost all sugar was exported at a guaranteed price, leaving Mauritians to consume the lower-quality imported variety.
Times have changed in the 50 years since independence. Today, the sugar industry is not what it was. The end of the Lomé Convention in 2009 deprived Mauritius of the preferential access to European markets that its raw sugar and that of other former African and Caribbean colonies had enjoyed for three decades. Last year, a residual quota system was scrapped altogether in accordance with World Trade Organization rules.
The abrupt change in the terms of market access has come as a blow to an industry already in decline. Businesses have moved quickly into refining but this has not proved enough to compete with the cheaper — and far bigger — producers of Brazil and India.
“Mauritius is challenging because the cost base has gone up considerably and the price has gone down quite aggressively,” says Jean-Pierre Dalais, group chief executive of Ciel, a local conglomerate that spans sugar to finance.
Today, sugar accounts for less than 2 per cent of Mauritian GDP, though it remains a significant export and foreign exchange earner. Sugar cane fields still cover perhaps a third of the island, though one investor, considering whether to grow high-priced vanilla instead, estimates there are 8,000 hectares of abandoned sugar cane fields.
One problem, he says, is the custom — stemming from the Napoleonic Code left intact by the British — of “forced heirship”. This system obliges owners to divide at least two-thirds of their estate between their children. That leaves younger owners, often with no interest in sugar production, in possession of smaller and smaller plots.
Much of the land once devoted to sugar has been given over to other purposes, whether call centres, property developments, university campuses or production of fruit and vegetables — of which Mauritius is still a net importer. Ciel has a project at Ferney, on the south-east of the island, growing organic tomatoes, strawberries and vanilla. Some of the land is being reforested.
Some sugar estates have been turned into luxury hotels catering to tourists seeking elegance and a piece of history. The Beau Plan Sugar Factory at Pamplemousses is now a museum, L’Aventure du Sucre, which presents a somewhat rose-tinted view of an industry in which slavery and Britain’s “great experiment” of Indian indentured labour played an indispensable — and grotesque — part.
One investor sees the sugar industry in a “seemingly inexorable downward spiral”.
But Azim Currimjee, a senior executive at the Currimjee Group, which has food, beverage and energy interests, views it differently. “The challenge is how do we keep it going,” he says.
One solution has been to turn sugar into energy. Bagasse, the fibre left over when sugar cane is crushed, can be burnt to produce electricity. Alteo, the sugar subsidiary of Ciel, owns a dual bagasse-coal plant, a hybrid pioneered in Mauritius, and sells electricity to the country’s central electricity board.
About a fifth of the island’s power is produced from bagasse in what Mr Dalais says is an economically rational green energy solution to Mauritian sugar’s declining competitiveness as a foodstuff.
“We need to be looking at all the value-added aspects, which we have not done even though we’ve been planting sugar for 500 years,” says Joseph Cartier, chairman of Mauritius’ Economic Development Board. Sugar is used to produce carbon for the soft drinks industry and vinasse, a bio-fertiliser.
Mr Currimjee says part of the answer lies in increasing output of specialist sugars, including demerara and muscovado. If Mauritius can no longer compete on price, he says it needs to move into niche markets, including high-quality rum.
Producers, he adds, should put more focus on producing “healthier” products in an era when sugar is acquiring a reputation as a new tobacco.
“It would be great to see Mauritius as a supplier of organic sugar — less in yield but more in value,” he says.
There are even rumours that Mauritian producers are working on a sugar that can be tolerated by diabetics — of whom there are many on the island.
In the struggle to adapt that has characterised the Mauritian economy since independence, there is yet another option for sugar producers — grow the commodity abroad.
Alteo, for example, has sugar plantations in Kenya and Tanzania, where it is producing sugar at the foot of Kilimanjaro. If the sugar mountain is no longer profitable in Mauritius, therefore, one solution may be to move the sugar to the mountain.
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