It has been realized for many years that producing and exporting sugar from Belize incurs higher costs than its competing countries.
In particular the long standing sugar price support from the European Union is to be discontinued in 2017. It is likely that the export price of sugar will be reduced by 25 – 35% and Belize will be exposed to much more competition from the large scale and more efficient sugar producers in countries such as Brazil.
In Belize, cane is mainly grown by a large number of relatively small scale independent farmers. In common with small-scale farming elsewhere in the world, the economic realities of limited production and under-utilization of expensive machinery has resulted in high production costs and financial difficulties for many of Belize’s cane farmers, even with the safety net of higher EU sugar prices.
The costs of reaping and delivering cane to Tower Hill are very high by international standards. They are currently approximately 50% ($27-$32 with a projected cane price of $60.45) of the farmer’s total income from cane. In other countries this figure is 25 – 30% of the cane income.
The high reaping costs are partly caused by there being excess cane loaders and trucks in the Tower Hill cane catchment area, with subsequent severe under-utilization. The cane loaders are being operated at approximately 3% of their capacity and the trucks at approximately 15% of capacity.
There are currently 269 registered reaping groups. 43% are so small that they can deliver only one load per day. Reaping groups are frequently family-based. Only 23% of the groups can deliver more than two average (16 t) loads per day. Only three reaping groups each deliver over 100 t/day.
At present each reaping group operates one grab loader. These units vary between old tractor-mounted units to the purpose-built 4wd Cameco SP1800. Given adequate cane and transport units the Cameco can load 30 – 40 tons/hour. Operating 24 hours/day in other countries they can load 600 – 700 t/day. This compares with the median 15 t/day currently being loaded in Belize.
Cane Transport Units
It is estimated that there are over 500 cane transport units currently in the system. The productivity of the delivery units (mainly trucks) to Tower Hill is very low and therefore expensive. These trucks are capable of making 2 – 3 trips per shift to the mill, equating to 6 trips per day or more. They are actually only making one trip per day since under the present delivery by appointment system, the cane is delivered in succession by each test group, averaging 380 t/group. This represents 1.25 hours milling at 7 200 t/day.
The one load per day restriction is also adversely affecting cane quality as the cane is waiting in the trucks for too long. The delivery by appointment system has reduced truck queues at the factory but many loaded trucks are still parked in the villages for up to 24 hours.
Amalgamation of reaping groups into larger units would be economically beneficial without incurring adverse effects. One load per day cannot pay the fixed and variable costs of operating a truck.
Changes in the scheduling and sampling system could be made to first allow at least two deliveries per truck per day. This would require the test groups to be enlarged to a minimum of 500 t/day, with the deliveries split in two halves, one day and one night. Each half would then deliver 250 t, which is regarded as the current minimum sample size. This split delivery would permit two loads per truck per day.
Once the concept of two deliveries per day per truck by larger reaping groups became accepted the number of cane trucks in the district could be reduced.Truck productivity in the existing multi-truck reaping groups could be improved immediately by increasing truck capacity (buy larger trucks or fit a trailer to a 10 wheeler) and reducing the number of trucks.
In addition, a mechanism must be found to allow several trips in a day (preferably with the largest possible trucks). It is therefore essential for the future of both the cane farmers and the miller that reaping costs are reduced. If this cannot be achieved there will be a major threat to the ongoing existence of the whole sugar industry in Belize.