Agricultural sustainability takes a front seat at Illovo

In 2022, Illovo achieved a major sustainability milestone when we verified each of our own agricultural estates across the Group under Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform’s Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI Platform) tool known as the Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA). Building on this, our grower agriculture teams are working hard to take its growers on the journey, assisting them to develop their own roadmaps towards implementing the FSA on the land that they cultivate.

The SAI Platform is a global not for profit organisation at the forefront in pioneering member-driven solutions to common challenges and promoting sustainable agriculture in a collaborative environment. Its solution, the FSA, enables businesses to assess, improve, and validate on-farm sustainability. This can be done as a self-assessment of the 109 questions across 11 topics that cover economic, social and environmental factors. The self-assessment can be verified by a qualified auditor in order to make performance claims against production volumes, which range from not-yet bronze, bronze, silver and gold level. For our estate agriculture teams, the FSA provides a unique and workable tool to progress the Group’s agricultural sustainability priorities and has been incorporated into our Group Agricultural Risk Assessment. The audit process on the Group’s estates at Nchalo, Dwangwa, Maragra, Kilombero, Nakambala and Ubombo resulted in a pleasing silver level status.

The FSA focuses on evidence to protect areas of high conservation value such as in Malawi, at the Phata Smallholder Cooperative.

Additionally, audits were also undertaken with three independent growers in Malawi’s Lower Shire Valley, including Phata Sugar Cane Outgrowers Cooperative and Kasinthula Cane Growers Association - both smallholder sugarcane growers - and Kaombe Estate, a large-scale commercial grower. All of these growers achieved a silver level status, and remarkably, Phata has since been awarded the inaugural FSA “Growing a Better Planet Award” for its leadership and innovation in the pursuit of continuous improvement.

The great variation in our grower cane supply such as different farm sizes, institutional setups, capabilities, cultural circumstances, and different access to resources and technologies, presents unique challenges to implementing sustainability, but also, exciting opportunities. Despite the complexity of implementing a sustainability system across such a diverse grower supply chain, the benefits of an internationally recognised better management practice system makes the journey worthwhile. The framework will foster better governance and improved stewardship of natural resource and people in line with Illovo’s Thriving African Community purpose. The FSA can be used flexibly as an individual stand-alone farm assessment or collectively as a Farm Management Group (FMG). This flexibility allows grower teams to pick the appropriate strategy to meet the unique context of each grower or grower group. It also allows Grower Support Managers and their extension teams to tailor support to the needs of different kinds of farms, and farm sizes.

Andrew Cochrane, Group Head of Grower Agriculture, highlights the benefit of the FSA system both at a farm business level, and also, to grower institutions.

“As a Group, approximately 60% of our cane supply is produced by more than 24 000 growers, the vast majority of whom are small-scale growers – so it’s important for us to get all growers on the sustainability journey rather that setting performance expectations. A well implemented FSA program holds much benefit for our growers, who by implementing sustainable agricultural practices, can strengthen their businesses and institutions as well as improve productivity and resilience. The continuous improvement plan will provide focus for the group to grow and develop, and the management system will focus the administration of the group,” says Andrew.

Surveying and assessing soils in a grower field across our operations is key to management and correct nutrition of crops.

To help each FMG prioritise the right steps according to need, Illovo’s grower teams will use participatory approaches to develop a Continuous Improvement Plan for each group. To support commercial requirements, FSA also monitors the use of a Volume Accounting System, which supports the record of accurate and reliable verified FSA claims and ensures that there is no double counting of FSA verified sugar. Illovo is aiming to complete these roadmaps and self-assessments in the current 2023/24 financial year which ends in August.

“We have a stewardship role over the resources that we manage and towards the communities in which we operate”, says Andrew. “That means using best management practices in our farming, improving productivity to reduce our footprint and supporting our growers to do likewise, so that together we can positively impact our environment and communities.”

And not leaving South Africa’s cane estates out of the picture, Andrew went on to say that its agricultural operations there are currently certified under the ProTerra Social Responsibility and Environmental Sustainability Standard and also complete SUSFARMS self-assessments. “But, I’m incredibly pleased to say that last year SUSFARMS was benchmarked against the FSA, and has achieved a gold level equivalency, which is a fantastic achievement and testament to the South African sugar industry and the growers who helped develop the SUSFARMS system. So this year, we have started the process of conducting our first external verifications of this benchmarked standard.”

“Playing a leading role in establishing and managing areas of biodiversity around our factories and cane fields are important environmental initiatives to mitigate the climate change impacts of our operations, with the 9 000 hectare Mhlosinga Nature Reserve at Ubombo being a great example.”

“Finally, it is incumbent on us to implement sustainable agricultural practices, protect biodiversity through managed wildlife areas and contribute to thriving rural communities through an inclusive supply chain, health and safety, employment and capability building. Taking our growers on the same journey, we want to champion agricultural sustainability equitably across our own and our growers’ cane operations. From small-scale growers to big estates, we should all have the inclusive support we require to implement sustainable agricultural practices, and FSA is a tool helping us to do that,” says Andrew

As part of the ABF Sugar group, we aim to play a leading role within the African sugar industry to fight climate change and have set ambitious 2030 targets to reduce both our carbon emissions and water usage by 30%.