Neither accountancy abilities, nor the skills to spot red ink in a company’s books are necessary to sense this business seems to be running in the black. Proof is in the taste and the taste is in the air.
For those with coarse palates there’s another indicator: A line of suppliers so long that drivers wait up to 24 hours to deliver their produce, yet seem content to queue.
Indonesia’s sugar industry may be dissolving under a flood of imports, according to the Indonesian Sugarcane Farmers’ Association (APTRI), but in Java’s largest mill production is flat out and prospects look good
Speaking in Jakarta this week (on 16 Oct) APTRI chair Arum Sabil also said low yields were crippling the government’s aim to have the nation self-sufficient by 2014.
“It has been a poor season largely because we had rain in July when it’s normally dry,” said Gatot Sudjarwato, head of engineering at Kebon Agung which also claims to be the most modern mill in Java.
“There are predictions of an early start to the wet season, so that could also have an impact.”
While still respecting Mr Sabil’s claims, indigenous industries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe are forever paranoid about imports, while farmers are genetically programed to complain about the weather. Whatever the rhetoric, the reality is that Kebon Agung (great garden) in the East Java town of Pakisaji appears to be doing lip-smacking OK.
The factory was built in 1905 but little remains of that age apart from the shell of a Dutch building with fortress-thick walls and arched doorways, plus a dead 1922 steam loco. Unlike some of the 56 mills operating in Java, Kebon Agung doesn’t have any colonial era relics in its production line.
Instead much of the equipment is relatively new. Other factories have teams of workers nursing ancient bearings with drips of cooling oil, but this plant is spookily free of labor, despite having 700 on the payroll working three shifts, day and night.
The system is controlled through mimic boards in a sealed air-conditioned cabin (discard shoes, this is sacred ground), high in the gods over the roaring machines. Here The Jakarta Post catches the two young controllers slacking. Call the boss – the men are playing Dungeons and Dragons.
Wrong, though indeed they might be; the images on their computers aren’t cartoon characters but graphic representations of the whole process from cane to crystals. Above the colored screens are 12 monitors showing closed-circuit TV pictures of the rolling, spinning and shaking equipment below.
While real trucks, each carrying about 15 tonnes, pull in at the two dumping bays to have their loads lifted into the crusher, the operators watch an animated vehicle delivering the cane and see it fed into the system.
If there’s a blockage or breakdown a machine can be bypassed or stopped – though that might be difficult, despite Gatot’s assurances that all would be well.
That’s because the cavernous factory houses a dragon, and it’s well known that such mighty fiends do awful damage when annoyed, even though this one’s an herbivore.
The beast that commands Kebon Agung has cruel black teeth inside a mouth that demands unstoppable feeding.
His jaws crush and shred the cane. The steam-powered stomach muscles squeeze the pulp with such force the cane juices squirt free. The creature convulses and belches volcanically, but the odor is sweet.
Further down the alimentary tract, evaporators and centrifuges clean up the mash while the waste fiber called bagasse is excreted. This is burned to heat the boilers and produce steam.
Proving that dragons are ruminants the sugar, no longer a sticky brown mess, is discharged as 50 kilo white pellets. These are stacked in ten-meter high square sugar cubes, each of 4,600 tonnes.
“We’re still looking for ways to make the plant more efficient,” said Gatot. “That includes using the bagasse to produce bio-ethanol, which is done overseas.
“We’re processing about 10,000 tonnes of cane a day but plan to lift capacity by 50 per cent. The work is already underway.”
It’s a wonder the old rail lines used when locomotives hauled cane to the mill still survive in East Java’s sugar towns. They remain long after road haulage took over, congesting the highways and sometimes toppling their over-size loads.
As scrap the steel must be worth recovering, but at present they’re dust-covered lines, usually running parallel to the road, pointing to nearby cane fields, a sure guide to a district’s industry..
Other indicators are the palatial homes of the long-gone sugar barons, though these squat and spacious mansions are now hard to spot behind later street-front developments.
Growing and harvesting is a tough job. Workers slash the two to three meter high cane, strip off the leaves, chop the stalks to size, bundle, stack and later load – all the while being alert to cobras attracted by rats.
Unlike rice threshers the men work with no shelter.
GrowerAbdul Rokim has been in the business since 1977 and brought in a truck full of thin cane, the best quality.
“The turnaround here is now much faster,” he said. “I arrived at six last night after driving for 25 kilometers and I’m almost ready to unload. (This was at 3 pm). Before we had to wait for days.” He expects to get about Rp 420,000 (US $ 38) a tonne for his cane.
Farmers are now free to deliver to any mill, making competition keener. During the Soeharto period growers were assigned to a specific factory.
Another spoonful, please
The sugar you’re spooning into your coffee this morning should be Indonesian, but if you’re drinking a can of cola the sweetness has probably been imported from Brazil, Australia or Thailand.
Health scares labelling sugar responsible for obesity, diabetes and heart disease seem to have had little impact in Indonesia, though some cool drink manufacturers are now offering low or no sugar products.
Sugar is number two on the government’s price-monitored Sembako list of nine essential household goods. The first is rice.
Indonesia’s self-sufficiency policy due to start next year seems doomed with politicians and producers agreeing a shortfall is inevitable, perhaps up to five million tonnes. Estimates depend on the lobbyist and the free-market or protectionist barrow they’re pushing.
The reasons include inefficient mills and insufficient investments, reduced plantings, floundering policies, dud data and – of course – the weather.
The world price varies, but is currently around US$360 (RP 4 million) to $390 a tonne (RP 4.3 million.). This month (Oct) the international bank Rabobank published a report on the global sugar industry predicting another world surplus, the fourth in succession.
Despite being a major producer, Indonesia is the second largest sugar importer in the world, just behind the European Union. Before World War 11 Indonesia exported sugar. ##
First published in The Jakarta Post 23 Oct 2013