Since its introduction as a commercial commodity in the early 1870’s, the sugar industry in Fiji has continuously weathered turbulent conditions. From, expiry of leases under sugarcane to low prices of sugar, the industry has continued to withstand these forces.
The resilience of the industry is credited to women and men like Isoa Saukuru, 46, of Rakiraki who live and breathe sugarcane.
Isoa is the Fiji Sugar Corporation’s field advisory manager at the Penang Mill in Rakiraki and has been with the company for over twenty years firstly as overseer and then as traffic officer than making his way up the ladder.
After two decades in the industry, Isoa is taking on a new approach in preaching the sugar message.
“Driving the sugar industry needs a ‘hands on’ approach and that is exactly what I’m doing. We are trying to encourage farmers to increase their production and for landowners with idle lands to utilise these by planting sugarcane on them,” said the father of three.
Last year, Isoa approached the Fiji Development Bank’s Rakiraki branch for an $11,000 loan to secure a 15 acre leased land.
“My aim is to create a model farm which focusses on quality and quantity so that this is a standard for farmers around Rakiraki and in the Ra Province. I’m working very closely with FDB to show farmers what they can achieve by maintaining such good relationships with stakeholders such as FDB.”
Isoa is motivated to help the industry get back to its glory days when it was dubbed the ‘back bone’ of the economy. The industry reached its peak in 1996 when it produced a staggering 438million tonnes, something Isoa is adamant is achievable in the future.
The sugar industry is the largest public enterprise in the country employing around 3,000 people while 200,000 depend on it for their livelihood.
“I’m serious about helping the industry and likewise government in improving cane production. We have the natural resources to do so however, people are moving into alternative livelihoods because of the cost of production of sugarcane. We in Rakiraki are fortunate that we have a mill minutes from town so transportation costs is not that much.”
Isoa is also spear heading the public relations campaign to farmers to utilise government subsidies invested into the industry.
“Government is currently offering $1,500 per hectare for land preparation which is the equivalent of roughly $600 per acre. We are using these grants to encourage farmers in producing more sugarcane.”
However, Isoa is not only targeting farmers but has extended his focus to civil servants and the working class in the Rakiraki municipality to go into sugarcane farming.
Isoa harvested 37 tonnes from the leftover sugarcane on his farm when he acquired the farm last year. He has since replanted these earlier in the year and is targeting an improved production to around 150 tonnes.
“Now that I’ve become a farmer too, I have come to better understand the challenges farmers face on a daily basis. I find that our PR exercise becomes more effective when they know I’m a sugarcane farmer and that I know what I’m talking about.”
“Sugarcane farming is not a difficult job. We are teaching our farmers to work smarter as opposed to working harder. This simply means working more efficiently and getting better results.”
He added that the work being done by the mill is starting to materialise with landowners planting sugarcane themselves. Some of the lands had been idle for up to 10 years are now turning into sugarcane fields.
Last year, the Penang Mill produced 159,000 tonnes of sugar and with the ground work underway to planting more sugarcane; the mill is setting a target of 220,000 tonnes. The mill achieved a milestone in 2006 when it reached 300,000 tonnes.
“We are setting ourselves achievable targets. I have been marketing FDB’s assistance to other farmers as I benefitted a lot from it. With FDB, assisting more of these farmers, I know we can surpass our targets in terms of production and I’ve been telling farmers, friends and colleagues to go to FDB as they really have a lot to offer to farmers.”