The impact of coronavirus (Covid-19) has stalled production and put at risk about 3 500 permanent and seasonal jobs at the Salima Sugar Factory, a public private partnership investment under Green Belt Authority (GBA).
The factory has been out of production for two months because technical experts from India cannot travel due to Covid-19 travel restrictions to undertake periodic factory maintenance.
GBA director of finance and investment Amon Mluwira said in an interview that the factory was supposed to start sugar production in April, but up to now there is no alternative expertise to operate the machines.
He, however, said production may resume in June as government intervention is being sought through the ministries of Industry and Trade, Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Indian Government to enable the technicians travel to Malawi on a special arrangement.
Mluwira said: “The factory is fully automated, it is a new technology and we are still in the process of transferring skills to Malawians so we needed the expatriates to come.
“This will affect our projections because losing over two months is a huge loss but Covid-19 is nobody’s fault, we just need to ensure we catch up to crash all the sugar within time.”
He said through a memorandum of understanding, government agreed that during the initial five years, the Indian partners will be bringing expatriates to train Malawians.
Mluwira said the number of expatriates has decreased from 150 in 2016 to the current 83.
He hoped that by 2021, there will be no expatriates left because the skills-transfer process will have been completed.
Salima Sugar Factory, which is owned 60 percent by Aum Sugar Company of India and 40 percent by Malawi Government, is an economic lifeline for 250 smallholder farmers, 3 300 seasonal workers and 200 permanent staff.
Sugarcane Growers Association of Malawi executive secretary Geoffrey Nkata said the delay will cost farmers more in maintaining sugar cane fields.
He said: “It’s a concern to us because this means a loss of return on investment and presents a huge impact on livelihoods in the current Covid-19 pandemic situation.
“This will also affect preparation for the next season because farmers will be delayed further in preparing their fields.”
Minister of Industry and Trade Salim Bagus said it was high time Malawians took full charge of the factory’s operations, saying there is available expertise in the country.
He said: “I already spoke against the hiring of expatriates to come and work here. We have a lot of experts in the country who can operate the factory, we have advised them to ensure we minimise such challenges.”
At the time of commissioning in 2016, the company produced 4 000 metric tonnes (MT) of sugar, which increased to 8 000 MT in 2018 and 13 000 MT IN 2019.
This year, the factory planned to produce 15 000 MT of sugar and 25 000 MT next year, for the domestic market.
Salima Sugar has recently become a competitor to Illovo Sugar Malawi plc which has been a monopoly for the past decades.
Sugar is the country’s second major export product foreign exchange earner after tobacco.