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Sudan, securing its future in sugar

Canal on the Kenana Sugar Plantation, Sudan
credit: Meghan Sapp

Thirty years ago, most of the banks of the White Nile River were bush, with a few nomads grazing their livestock. More than 100,000 acres beside the river has been transformed into one of the world's largest sugarcane plantations. Home and workplace for 60,000 people, the Kenana Sugar Company's plantations and the 'company town' are something of a miracle in the desert. Nicknamed "Green Gold" by its creators, sugar production in this part of Sudan was always envisioned as more than a business venture; developed as a public-private partnership, these 100,000 acres of sugarcane now produce more than 400,000 metric tons of sugar annually, supplying Sudan's domestic needs and exports to its regional neighbours and to Europe.

Kenana sugar mill stacks
credit: Meghan Sapp

Though Sudan is classified by the United Nations as a Least Developed Country (LDC), Kenana's sugar production is one of the most efficient in the world, ranking close to the world's leading sugar producer, Brazil. On-site crop trials are one of Kenana's approaches to producing sugar more efficiently, and its sugar mill runs on electricity generated from burning bagasse, the residue of cane after sugar extraction. The company also owns 11 patents for agricultural implements, designed by Kenana engineers as improvements to implements from other climates and soils that performed inadequately. Diversification includes a product range from sugar to animal feeds to syrups, and also other crops and livestock enterprises that the company is continually expanding and developing. New ventures include the management and development of the White Nile sugar project, a new plantation to rival Kenana itself, and Kenana's technical consultancy, KETS, whose responsibilities include management of some of Nigeria's recently privatized sugar facilities.

Meeting a cut-price future

Reforms to the European Union's sugar market, which has guaranteed competitive prices for sugar to African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) sugar producers since the 1970s, is expected to cut the price by 39 per cent from the market year 2006/7. However, Kenana expects to be one of only a handful of LDCs continuing to export at a profit once EU reforms come into force.

But Kenana is more than just the world's largest sugar mill under one roof, and more too than one of the most successful agricultural operations in Sudan. In the steps of what US and UK companies did in the early 20th century for their employees, Kenana has taken the concept of 'company town' further. Despite its reliance on seasonal workers for sugar production, the company supplies year-round housing for its some 6,000 workers and their families. And, besides their free housing, and a monthly wage of 50,000 Sudanese Dinar ($200) during the season, they receive free water and free or low cost access to vegetables and meat, produced on the plantation. This in turn has had a positive feed-back as a cattle enterprise, that began as a means of providing meat for workers, was later expanded into commercial beef, milk and cheese production.

All employees and their families also have free access to the 180-bed hospital located within the plantation and staffed by eight full-time doctors, who do everything from treating the sick to conducting on-site research on malaria prevention and work in the hospital's blood lab. If staff or their family cannot be treated on site, the more than 60,000 people dependent on Kenana also have access to free health care in Khartoum. In addition, more than 30 schools are located within the plantation's villages, offering primary, secondary and even university education, as well as English language courses and free access to computers and the Internet.

By securing a healthy and educated workforce, Kenana is ensuring its capacity to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Article written by Meghan Sapp
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1st November 2005