Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Monday, November 21, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
"..solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" was the great 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes' bleak assessment of the human condition without political community.
Hobbes might have been a little more cheerful had the sweetness of sugar been widely available, but in his day, the European sweet tooth was only satisfied by honey and ripe fruits. Sugar was yet to make its appearance. The discovery of the New World changed all that. Suddenly, vast tracts of cultivable land became available to Europe. Once indigenous populations had been subjugated (or, more often than not, decimated by disease and genocide), the hideous triangular trade began. Cheap trinkets from Europe to Africa in exchange for boatloads of African slaves to the New World in exchange for cargos of sugar and tobacco back to Europe. Hobbes' words would also have made an accurate description of the life of slaves on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and elsewhere. One only has to read extracts from the loathsome Thomas Thistlewood's diary, quoted extensively in Adam Hochschild's book Bury The Chains, to appreciate the horrors of sugar plantation life in Jamaica and elsewhere.
The sugar industry in Kenya was my first significant exposure to agro-industry in Africa. I worked on a consulting assignment for Coopers & Lybrand in 1996, in partnership with Barclays Merchant Finance, to provide advisory services to the Kenyan Government on the privatisation of Chemelil Sugar. Like many of the sugar companies in Kenya, Chemelil was under-performing: cane costs to the factory were high, sugar yields were low, and the market suffered from periodic distortion due to low cost imports. I became very interested in the dynamics of the sugar industry - and, after reading the excellent book Seeds of Change" by Henry Hobhouse, in its history. Recently, Elizabeth Abbott published a well-written and more complete history of the sugar industry entitled Sugar: a Bitterweet History, which should be compulsory reading for sweet-eaters everywhere.
As the resident sugar industry expert in Coopers Kenya, I subsequently led a team on a management consulting assignment at the giant Sudanese sugar company, Kenana Sugar. Kenana dwarfs the Kenyan sugar companies. Carved out of the desert a little south of Kosti on the White Nile, its huge area, massive factory and large-scale irrigation facilities drawing water directly from the Nile (pictured above) is remarkable. With production figures exceeding 350,000 MT per year, it is one of the largest sugar businesses in the world, supplying most of Sudan's needs and exporting to the Middle East and Europe.
So, let's start with some facts. Sugar is produced from sugar cane (in tropical and sub-tropical climates) and from sugar beet in colder climates. Sugar cane, like the banana, was first domesticated as a crop in New Guinea about 2,500 years ago. Sugar cane is one of the most efficient converters of solar energy into biomass (and potential chemical energy). It is perennial - though after several ratoons it begins to lose its vigour and needs replanting. Almost all countries around the world produce sugar. As far as I can see, only Norway and some of the other smaller European states have zero production. Indeed, many countries have autarkic policies for national sugar industries (for example China and India) and of total global production estimated at 150 million MT, only about 20-25% is traded internationally. This means that the price of sugar on the global market can fluctuate dramatically if the supply side is affected by factors leading to significant under- or over-production by large exporters like Brazil or Australia.
Or, indeed, Mauritius, which is where I have the pleasure of being at the moment. Coming to this lovely island in the midst of the Indian Ocean is one of the privileges of my job. Alas, there is little if any time to sample the delights of the beach, but just to be beside the waterfront in Port Louis is compensation enough. While Mauritius has developed world-class tourism and offshore financial services industries, the cultivation of sugar cane and the processing and production of sugar was until recently the bedrock of the island's economy - and remains a very important contributor. As such, Mauritius has invested heavily in supporting the industry through world-class research and development of improved cane varieties, to ensure that it can produce high-quality sugar at a competitive cost of production.
The manufacturing process of sugar from cane is simple. Freshly cut sugar cane is crushed, the juice extracted and the fibre broken up. The fibre (called bagasse in the industry) is used as biofuel to power the mills. In Mauritius - and increasingly elsewhere - surplus power from bagasse is sold to local electricity distributors. After impurities are removed from the juice, the pure juice is reduced by evaporation until the liquid is sufficiently concentrated to allow sucrose crystallisation. The viscous black liquid that remains - molasses - is used for bioethanol production and for animal feeds. In effect, nothing goes to waste.
Until 2006, Mauritius benefited from very favourable tariffs that allowed it, under the Lome Convention, to export the majority of its sugar production to the European Union at preferential prices. Despite the removal of these tariffs, the Mauritian industry has remained profitable, due to industry rationalisation and value addition.
Yet, just as in the Caribbean, the Mauritian sugar industry was also founded on slavery and indentured labour. It seems extraordinary that such an inessential, indeed damaging, commodity should have caused so much human suffering and death. Sugar has no nutritional value. It contributes to tooth decay, diabetes and obesity. But by some biological quirk, some evil trick of mother nature, it delights human tastebuds to the extent that we cannot live without it.
Perhaps it's just that sugar helps us believe that life is sweet, and not, as Thomas Hobbes asserts "nasty, brutish, and short".
Friday, November 4, 2011
Is there anything more therapeutic than "footing", to give walking its Kampala slang name? I don't know if it's a function of simply breathing outdoor air, or the joy of being closer to nature, or, as Ian McEwan describes it in his aptly-named novel, Amsterdam, the "gentle release of endorphins" brought on by vigorous footing, or indeed a function of all three. Whatever it is, for me it is one of the most primal and precious of pleasures. Even in the flat lands - the nether lands - of the landscape around Schipol airport.
I footed along the quiet banks of the Nieuwe Meer for a good hour or so in watery sunlight, revelling in late autumn colour and the birdlife of my childhood. I counted a remarkable 21 different bird species, including chaffinches, jackdaws, magpies, coots, mallard ducks, pied wagtails, and a few winter visitors like greylag geese. Best of all was the sight of a pair of whooping swans in flight, presumably on their journey from the breeding grounds of the far north of Europe to their winter home further south.
One of the bizarre aspects of footing in richer countries is how few fellow-walkers one meets. In my 90 minutes along the Nieuwe Meer, I only encountered about ten other walkers, four of whom were with their dogs. The absence of pedestrians was even more pronounced during my recent visit to Canada, where - astonishingly - on the 20 minute mid-morning walk from the hotel to visit my sons, through a fairly densely-packed residential area of Burlington, Ontario, I did not see a single fellow-pedestrian. In most of Africa, of course, pedestrians abound and I have become so accustomed to crowded pavements that the emptiness of rich and densely-populated countries always comes as a surprise.