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Early Beginnings

Sugarcane originated in the Polynesian Islands in the South Pacific about 8 000 years ago. Spreading westwards, in 500 BC, the Persian Emperor, Darius, found it in India and called it “the reeds which produced honey without bees”.

Alexander the Great introduced sugarcane to the Mediterranean from where it spread to Persia (now Iran), Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the East Coast of Africa. In 1493, Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage to the Americas, took some Spanish seed cane to his headquarters on the Caribbean island of Santa Domingo. The sun, plentiful rain and rich soil produced an excellent crop and it was not long after that, that the Spanish and Portuguese, who owned the East and West Indies, controlled the world sugar market.

In 1655 the British acquired the West Indian islands of Jamaica and Tobago and by the 18th century, London had become the centre of the “white gold” sugar trade.

about-early beginnings
Edmund Morewood
who became the
founder of the South
African sugar industry

Morewood and Natal

Jan van Riebeeck experimented with sugarcane at the Cape of Good Hope in the 17th century. He frequently asked the Government of Batavia (now Jakarta) in the East Indies for “young sugarcane, in cases of soil and already growing” for his settlement on the slopes of Table Mountain. This, as well as “Imphe” or “sweet reed”, as it was referred to by the Zulus, was the only known production of domestic sugarcane in South Africa at that time.

However, in the 19th Century, it was an Englishman named Edmund Morewood who became the founder of the South African sugar industry. At his farm “Compensation” on the Natal North Coast, he planted his first sugarcane crop in 1848 and made the country’s first sugar in 1851 using wooden rollers made from Yellowood trees and pushed by hand.

His first handful of sugar was the realization of a well calculated guess that sugarcane would grow well in this region of the world. Sadly, he gained nothing from this pioneering experiment, for he was unable to raise enough money to continue farming and emigrated to Brazil in 1853. A replica of the all-wooden sugar mill used in the very early days of sugar manufacture can be seen at Compensation, north of Durban. (For more information, contact the SA Sugar Association at 031-3056161).

Nevertheless, Morewood was one of the pioneer settlers, who lived with and won the respect of the Voortrekkers. He was a member of the delegation from Port Natal which concluded a “defence treaty” with Panda against Dingaan in 1839. In 1840 he was appointed Harbour Master and Commissioner of Customs under the Voortrekker Republic.



Transvaal Sugar Limited was founded in 1965, in the Onderberg region of the South Eastern Transvaal Lowveld, now Mpumalanga, the place of the rising sun, this area is legendary for the early mining potential, as a hunting ground and for the beautiful unspoilt natural environment.

In this pristine valley where nature is largely undisturbed, the hot sunny climate and the fertile soils lend themselves to the highest quality sugar cane in the country growing alongside other healthy and exotic subtropical fruits like litchis, mangos, bananas and citrus.

Along with the traditional commercial farmers are a substantial number of small growers including new projects currently being developed at Hoyi, Mabuna, Madadeni and Spoons, all of whom supply 3,5 million tons of excellent sugar cane reaped from 34 000 hectares.

RCL Foods Sugar and Milling (Pty) Ltd − Sugar state of the art mills and refinery at Komati and Malelane are able to produce 600 000 tons of sugar annually which is marketed under the mystical SELATI “in the footsteps of my father”.. brand with its renowned red sun icon and original Selati “weave” decoration.

With the gradual deregulation of the South African sugar industry it has become necessary for RCL Foods Sugar and Milling (Pty) Ltd − Sugar to broaden their strategic vision to include, in addition to low cost production, for closer focus on consumer and trade needs in terms of new products, packs and distribution channels.

Since the commissioning of the company’s first sugar mill in Malelane in 1967 RCL Foods Sugar and Milling (Pty) Ltd − Sugar has experienced tremendous growth, and in 1994 a second sugar mill was established south of Komatipoort and a third acquired in 2009 in Pongola.

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Sugar World

The Geography of Sugar Cane

Sugar cane grows in tropical and semi-tropical regions of the world, roughly between the latitudes 35oN and 30oS, and in areas where it is hot and sunny all year with heavy seasonal rainfall. The cane grows in the tropical wet season and ripens during the dry season. A dry period is needed for harvesting. On average a hectare yields 50 tonnes of sugar cane from which 7 tonnes of sugar can be extracted – depending on soil quality and climate. Some 80 million tonnes of cane sugar are produced each year in nearly 60 countries. Bad harvests due to drought or hurricanes can make this figure much smaller.