Sugarcane's enduring acceptance and large-scale local consumption in Nigeria point to its huge economic potential even in the local and crude form in which it is produced and sold.

It is estimated that the informal 'industry' behind this business from the Fadama areas where it thrives abundantly to the processors who scrape and cut it into portable sticks and the ubiquitous barrow-boys make millions of naira annually, thereby contributing to the sustainability of the local economy. That our local sugarcane farmers and their enterprising partners can make such an impressive economic impact relying virtually on their own sweat and acumen is certainly worth celebrating in a nation unceremoniously distinguished for neglecting its God-given resources while squandering its wealth on imported goods.


However, that is not where the sweet news about Nigeria's sugarcane prowess should end because the future prosperity in terms of meeting the national demand and building an industrial complex from this commodity actually lies in the development of the industrial variety of sugarcane which is used not just for mass-producing sugar as we know it, but also for a wide range of derivatives that can earn substantial foreign exchange for the nation. The bitter news is that Nigeria has been indulging in massive importation of sugar all these years and latest official figures indicate that in 2007 alone, 338.32 million dollars or about 36 billion naira was spent on sugar imports up from 197.17 million dollars (2006), 281.47 million dollars (2005) and 229.23 million dollars (2004).

In the circumstance, local sugar mills have been left to manage the production of a mere five percent of the nation's total sugar requirement now estimated at 1.2 million tonnes annually, 95 percent of which is imported. These startling statistics are more befitting of a nation that has a very low potential for sugar production because they also show that there has been virtually no progress in terms of developing the local capacity for sugar production. However, the Nigerian situation is not as hopeless as the sugar importation costs suggest.

In fact, we have recently been reassured by none other than the Executive Secretary of the National Sugar Development Council (NSDC), Alhaji Usman Bello, who is currently involved in a bold programme of revitalisation of the local industrial sugarcane production capacity in Nigeria in pursuit of the Yar'adua administration's seven-point agenda for transforming the nation into one of the 20 leading global economic players by the year 2020, that there are more than 40 suitable sites for industrial sugarcane production identified so far capable of producing about three million tonnes annually or three times the national demand.

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The NSDC itself has been bracing up to meet this challenge assigned to it by the Federal Ministry of Commerce and Industry with the laudable objective of harnessing the available potentials of the sector to cater for local demand and even export. One of the major policy thrusts toward the attainment of this objective is the adoption by the Federal Government of a re­industrialisation strategy through federal/state or public/private partnership initiative for the establishment of some mini-plant sugar factories across the country.

Towards this end, sugarcane farmers are being encouraged to not only take up the production of industrial sugarcane, but also to increase their output to meet the demand of the mini-plants coming on stream by forming cooperatives as a means of accessing bank loans and other facilities. In one of such moves, the NSDC recently organised sugarcane out-growers stakeholders meetings in Yola, Zaria and Lokoja to sensitise them on the new opportunities that would come their way, especially if they formed a registered national association as well as cooperative societies. The farmers were made aware of the existing and upcoming corporate mini-plants and those that cooperatives will establish which will need an increasing amount of industrial sugarcane as their principal raw material.

At the meetings, the farmers and sugar plant proprietors were also briefed on the plans for local production of ethanol fuel which would depend largely on industrial sugarcane as raw material. Evidence of serious commitment to the revitalisation of the nation's sugar sector has also come in the form of the recent commissioning of a number of mini-plant sugar factories in various parts of the country. At the commissioning of one of the mini-factories in Lau, Taraba State, the Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, Alhaji Ahmed Garba Bichi, reiterated the need for sugarcane farmers to meet the challenge of increasing their productive capacities and getting involved in the establishment of the mini-plant sugar factories to maximise the benefit of the Federal Government's resolve to revitalise the sector.

The minister was quoted as saying that Nigeria has over 500,000 hectares of low land suitable for sugarcane cultivation. The Lau mini-plant sugar factory is the result of collaboration between the Federal and Taraba State governments and is the third of its type to be commissioned after one at Engono­Agbede in Edo State and Shonga in Kwara State. According to the Executive Secretary of the NSDC, Alhaji Usman Bello, three other factories in Kano, Kebbi and Kogi states are also ready for commissioning soon. The choice of mini-plant sugar factories rather than the large-scale complexes is wise in view of the cost implications for both acquisition and operation, not to mention maintenance.

From all indications, the bitter news about the nation's overdependence on sugar imports at the detriment of the development of its abundant potentials for viable local industrial sugar production will soon be a thing of the past. The NSDC's laudable efforts to sensitise sugarcane farmers on the need for them to be more organised in order to benefit from the new Federal Government initiatives for boosting local production of industrial sugarcane should be sustained. The NSDC too needs to be adequately supported in this initiative because as the veritable repository of the nation's database on all aspects of the sugar sector and the vehicle for the actualisation of the new drive for self-sufficiency in the sector, the council is of immense strategic relevance. Any effort to boost local production of sugar and indeed any resource that we have huge potentials for is a welcome development if only because it will put a stop to the massive drain of foreign exchange through avoidable imports.

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The revitalisation of the sugar sector will also provide huge employment opportunities and serve as a catalyst for further appreciation of the nation's much neglected agricultural and industrial sectors. It is a step in the right direction, especially in the context of the 7-point agenda of the Yar'adua administration and its vision of making Nigeria a major economic force by the year 2020. It will be advisable for the Federal Government to consider other policy measures that will guarantee sustainability of the ongoing efforts to revitalise the local sugar industry, because past experience has shown that it is not enough to encourage local production when the import policy constitutes a hindrance to the viability of local production.

While local production is being boosted, there should be a deliberate policy to discourage massive importation that can render local production unviable. If these issues are given the attention they deserve and consistency of policy is maintained until we realise our objectives as a nation in the quest for self-sufficiency, then there will be all-round sweetness in the sugar sector. It is of critical strategic importance therefore that the NSDC's efforts be given the appropriate Federal Government financial and policy support on a sustained basis.

source:allafrica

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