“We prayed. What else could we do?” Thulani Simelane says and smiles. Everyone in Swaziland seems to smile as they talk. But he then looks away and pauses: “Last year was hard.”
A tall man, his broad shoulders allow him to work the electric pump that supplies irrigated water to Sikuvile, a smallholder farming community in the north-eastern corner of the world’s last absolute monarchy. That means he is the first point of contact with the water that brings green to the banks of the Inkomati River, before it heads over the border into South Africa and then on into Mozambique.
Last year was the third year of drought in southern Africa, and the worst for Swaziland. In a good year, Simelane can run the pump all day for six days a week. But water levels in the Maguga Dam, upstream from the farm, dropped to 20%. Simelane had to throttle the water flow. “They [the water authority] told us to drop our quota.” Six days became three, and then only for 18 hours a day.
The community got to the point late last year where they were discussing which fields they would stop irrigating, and leave to die. With the country’s climate change predictions showing that water levels will drop 40% this century, thanks to disproportionate warming, these discussions were a precursor of those to come.
But then it rained. Prolific rain. Hendrik Khoza’s makeshift chicken coop – three brick walls and a zinc roof – caved in. Now the cushion for his family’s food security comes from the plants around his home.
Like the yards of the 43 neighbours who share Sikuvile 100-hectares, Khoza’s is packed with cassava, mango, wheat, banana and sweet potato. They welcomed the rain. “The drought here was so bad. But we prayed and by the grace of God now we have rain.”
Following custom, the wiry man brings a set of formal chairs from inside his unplastered brick home and puts them under the single large tree in his yard. He sits on a black plastic water container. “The soil here is very, very, good but the rain is a problem. More of a problem these days.”
That soil – and the subtropical conditions – have allowed Sikuvile to experiment in small-scale sugarcane growing, to see whether it can be done to benefit communities. After 15 years of operation, the sugercane growing is also increasingly becoming an testbed for resilience to climate change. The state weather agency says average temperatures in the country have already increased by 3°C – triple the world average.
This heat means works starts at 5am on Sikuvile. At 360m above sea level, Swaziland’s subtropical lowveld reaches temperatures of over 40°C. The 80% humidity later in the day blankets everyone in a sticky layer of sweat, making labour nigh on impossible.
But at 5am it is only 23°C. Groups of workers, guided by the purple stabs of sunlight streaking across the sky, start moving across the farm. Once 44 individual plots – where so little food could be produced that the World Food Programme was ever-present – the farm is now one business unit. That allows resources to be pooled, so things such as the bright yellow waterproof macs and armored face masks that workers wear in the sugarcane plantations can be bought.
Those macs mean teams of workers can force their way through the densely packed reeds and move the spigots that irrigate the plantation. Seen from on top of one of the 3m-tall ladders dotted around Sikuvile (allowing people to spot for fire) these rhythmically spit water across the thirsty fields, creating a layer of moisture that slides down the sides of each reed plant.
The same process is repeated for 400km, as the Inkomati brings water to thousands of hectares before it flows into the Indian Ocean above Mozambique’s capital Maputo. Similar rivers, and conditions, mean sugarcane is grown across vast swathes of the eastern side of Africa.
Sugercane farming only arrived in Swaziland in 1958, through the Colonial Development Corporation, in what was then a British protectorate. Entire communities of subsistence farmers were displaced so that big mills and estate towns could be built. An aqueduct built above Sikuvile diverted half of the water flowing down the Inkomati into these mills and their attendant sugar plantations.
That extractive sugar model only slowed down in the late 1990s, when the mills ran out of land. With half of the country held as Swazi Nation Land – owned by King Mswati III on behalf of his people – the only option then was to involve communities in growing sugarcane. For an industry that contributes 18% of the country’s GDP, success was key.
The first step came with the completion of the Maguga Dam in 2001. Water rights were allocated to downriver communities, to use for irrigated farming. Tariff- and quota-free access for Swazi sugar to the European common market – a measure introduced to help countries in need of development – made sugarcane the first choice for Sikuvile when it came to deciding what to do with that water. Success has meant each family got around R50 000 last year, even though production dropped due to the drought.
Other equipment has followed as a result. Farmers now hire a tractor to come plough the maize fields around their homes, which look like islands, surrounded by 2m-tall sugarcane. Behind her rondavel, Sarah Dlamini is following the tractor as it goes up and down her previously fallow field. The circular jaws of its plough have churned up sweet potato, and some big, disgruntled, ants. Her hands sift through the dark red, almost black, soil to grab the potato so she has something to cook tonight. Stepping aside as the green John Deere tractor turns around, she says: “Our family has always farmed here. You can grow anything.” The sugarcane income means the R250 to pay for the tractor for an hour is quickly handed over.
But now that income is in danger. In September, reforms to the EU’s sugar policies will come into effect, bringing in less income for mills and growers. This will be a big blow for Swaziland, which earns R1.5-billion a year from the industry, according to the Swaziland Sugar Association. Half of its sugar is sold to the union. That so-called “Swazi gold” supports three mills and 449 sugarcane growers, of which 410 are smallholder farmers or part of an association such as Sikuvile.
Industry experts such as Mike Ogg – a consultant living 10km away in the now dilapidated colonial-era sugar town of Tshaneni – say this will force the local industry to change tack. Some 47% of its produce is sold into southern Africa. A proposed sugar tax in neighbouring South Africa is projected to dent that export.
But mandatory blending regulations, coming into force over the coming decade, across the region could create a whole new market for Swazi sugarcane, in the form of ethanol. Here, the cane is fermented and its juice produces a liquid that can combat, just like conventional fuel. Brazil’s sugar industry – the world’s largest with 700-million tonnes produced a year, compared to Swaziland’s 5-million – has grown on the back of a 25% blending ratio in that country.
The other option is to use examples such as Sikuvile to rebrand the Swazi sugar industry. Ogg says: “It costs $12 000 to develop a hectare of sugarcane so you need a good business plan to attract investment. Something nobody else has.” The big corporate buyers of sugar, such as Coca Cola and Nestlé, are under increasing pressure to get sugar that is ethically produced, and does not harm the environment or communities. Removing his glasses to wipe away the sweat accumulated on their thin frame, Ogg says farms such as Sikuvile can give this. “Look, Swaziland has a good story to tell when it comes to sugar. Sikuvile has a good story to tell. It’s a good brand.”
A brand like that could guarantee income for Swaziland’s sugarcane farmers. But the country’s plans to adapt to climate change show that farmers in the lowveld will have to make tough choices in the near future. The country contributes 0.002% of global carbon emissions, while it will be disproportionately affected by climate change. Average temperatures are projected to increase by 6°C this century, which will drop water resources by 40% across the country.
Simelane, the water engineer at Sikuvile, says this means people are already having conversations about how good cane will be as an investment. “We saw now what shortages can do to the crop and they say it will only get worse. Can we still grow when there is so little water, especially when you need the food crops?” Other community members echo the sentiment, saying that their children will have to start diversifying the sugarcane crop to include things such as mango and maize.
That could mean that the sight of sprinklers spitting water across fields of towering green sugarcane might be something that vanishes with a warming Swaziland. But, for now, it has allowed hungry communities across the country’s lowveld to earn enough money to take control over their own lives.
This article was produced with Climate Home, using funding from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), as part of a series on climate change in southern Africa.