The story of Compagnie Sucriere Senegalaise, one of Senegal’s stalwart enterprises and most important socioeconomic drivers, and its bid to bolster food security.
Chief Executive Officer of Compagnie Sucriere Senegalaise (CSS), André Froissard, talks to Africa Outlook about the company’s history and latest endeavours. Please note – the original interview was conducted in French and has been translated for this publication.
How was CSS born, why did you choose to create it in Senegal?
André Froissard (AF): No one better than Hubert CHOUVENC, author of the story “Des Hommes, du Sucre, aux Portes du Désert” could better describe the comparative history of Richard Toll and the CSS. The following excerpts are quoted from his story:
“A long time ago, in the northern part of a country named Senegal, there was a river that flowed idly in the middle of the bush, or the desert, one should say. To the odds of its meanders maliciously set by Mother Nature, a few villages dozed off under the sun. These were small fishermen and farmers villages which struggled to survive to the whims of the river and its floods. A few tribes of shepherds pastured along the banks in search of water so precious for both men and animals. Of these hamlets, there was a village somewhat larger, just a borough not then a city, at the south of which a large plain stretched until the boundaries of a lake lost among the reeds and the papyruses. The conditions there seemed much better, water was plentiful. The river was north and the lake was south, but by another vagary of Mother Nature, the soil remained highly unyielding.
“One day something happened that would irremediably change the very face of the village, an ordinary event related due to chance: a determined man walked through Richard Toll and visited the plain. Mr. Jacques Mimran was his name. He arrived at the heart of this land located in the middle of nowhere in the 1970s, and perhaps he already knew that he would never leave again. One needed sharp imagination, or to be a visionary, to change the course of things by farming in the desert… yet this was precisely his project: to grow sugar on a salty land.
“Sometime later, he settled in the village. He took measurements and surveys, made complex calculations which no-one could understand. Machines came one day, in large clouds of dust and engine roars, to disrupt the silence of the forgotten bush. There was a full convoy there: trucks, tractors, bulldozers, cranes and all kinds of other contraptions operated by a small army of drivers and mechanics.
“Workers came from everywhere, but there were not then many and every morning trucks set out for the bush and nearby hamlets to recruit villagers desirous to earn some money. The factory had finally started operating and the warehouses started filling up with sugar entirely produced in the village. It was a favourable period for the inhabitants of the locality who saw their generations multiply. The workers were pampered before giving in to the machetes of an army of cane cutters who swarmed the fields every morning during the harvesting period. Today, Richard Toll has grown into a very well-known city countrywide.
“The establishment of such an agro-industrial plant under these conditions could not happen without a few difficulties. These difficulties were primarily logistical but mostly infrastructural related. Everything had to be invented, everything had to be installed; from housing quarters to land layout and development.”
The relatively prosperous town of Richard Toll’s local economy relies mainly on the sugar cane industry thanks to CSS. What defines your strength technically, in terms of management, products, socially and market positioning?
AF: The Compagnie Sucrière Sénégalaise, as a key player in the local economy, is a breath of fresh air for Richard Toll and represents the main funder of the municipality’s budget. The tens of thousands of farmers and herders who permanently benefit from its actions can attest to that.
The CSS cultivates sugar cane, but it actively participates in rice production through the support it provides to thousands of rice farmers by fully covering their irrigation water bill on more than 5,000 hectares sown in double season. The company’s establishment conditions anticipated the development of the surrounding villages and quickly the problem of access to water arose. For 50 years CSS has supplied drinking water to the surrounding villages, this having also developed boreholes and basins for livestock.
These actions were reinforced thanks to the arrival of the Marie Louise Mimran Foundation, particularly in the areas of education and health.
The strength of CSS is drawn from this early management of the human factor in its environment. As the country’s largest private employer, the CSS has sought excellence through the development of human capital and investment in technological innovation.
In all production sectors, the shareholder has not skimped on the means to procure the equipment and materials resulting from the latest innovations, which means that it is among the first in the world in terms of yield per hectare of sugar cane.
At the managerial level, Senegal’s self-sufficiency programmes in sugar, KT 150 and KT 200 have been the pretext for profound changes in human resources. Targeted recruitments of young talents trained and working in Europe, eager to return home, as well as quality training plans, have helped increase industrial yields to place CSS among the most successful sugar industries in Africa.
The results obtained in recent years sufficiently indicate the relevance of such strategic choices. Promising results were achieved on sugar and alcohol products.
The production of white sugar is approximately 140,000 tonnes and entirely intended for the local market, while that of alcohol, a highly strategic product during this period of the pandemic, peaked at more than 12 million litres. In its future strategies, the CSS intends to market brown sugar, with a vision of development in B2B and B2C marketing. This latter product is increasingly in demand.
How do your farmers feel to be involved in your company activities? Do they know the real impact of such a factory and its activities on the daily life of Senegalese people?
AF: Throughout the infrastructure of the Compagnie Sucrière Sénégalaise, horticultural and fruit farms are born, benefiting from free water supply all year round.
There is also, as mentioned above, 5,000 hectares of rice cultivated on the perimeters of Colonat, Thiagar, Lougue Deymis, Pakh (localities of Richard Toll). In addition, there is free maintenance of equipment and other collective facilities such as canals and drains. All of this interaction is underpinned by trust and solidarity, cemented by 50 years of intelligent cohabitation.
How is your sector dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic that has struck in Senegal?
AF: The agribusiness sector has been the least impacted by the pandemic. Admittedly, the general preventive measures dictated by the Senegalese government have resulted in additional costs, in particular on expense accounts such as salaries and staff transport, but overall the sector has so far weathered well the impact of the pandemic and no dismissals for economic reasons have been recorded by us so far.
We have been fortunate enough to avoid draconian measures which would have resulted in the total or partial closure of the company.
The health crisis has made many countries aware of the need to focus on ‘producing locally, consuming locally’. Do you think that the revival of economic activities should necessarily go through local production by boosting local industry before promoting imports?
AF: Judging from the content of the post COVID-19 Resilience Plan concocted by the Senegalese Government, we believe that the public authorities have become aware of the limits of an outward-looking economy, which imports its essential products including food and strategic drugs. It was proven long ago that the economic development of Senegal, in the absence of natural resources, will inevitably involve agriculture and the processing of agricultural production.
The Compagnie Sucrière Sénégalaise has just taken an important step in the process of achieving self-sufficiency in sugar in Senegal. In fact, during the 2019-2020 harvest campaign which has just been completed, we have just produced 141,000 tonnes of sugar.
Achieving self-sufficiency also means removing all the constraints that block the development of local production. As long as traders are allowed to compete with local production efforts, through the all-out distribution of import licenses, self-sufficiency will remain an empty slogan.
The other big constraint on the way to food self-sufficiency remains the nagging issue of access to land. The sustained politicisation of the land issue is increasingly turning investors away in favour of new generations of real estate speculators who are gradually transforming arable land into real estate projects. For more than eight years, the CSS has been looking for 3,500 hectares to complete Senegal’s self-sufficiency programme in sugar.
The Senegalese Valley brings together farmers and fishermen. Because of the scarcity of fish, fishermen are turning to agriculture – yet aquaculture could be an alternative for fish self-sufficiency. Would you be open to a real partnership with the National Aquaculture Agency (ANA) to meet the food needs of the population?
AF: Indeed, years of wild fishing in our plains and rivers have led to a scarcity of catches. Many fishermen find themselves helpless in the face of this situation and are increasingly thinking of giving up this profession. Aquaculture could be a viable solution in this area.
The National Aquaculture Agency has been working with the CSS for years to create potential, also focusing on biological control of the weed cover of the banks of water bodies with herbivorous species of fishes. Conclusive results have been obtained. The CSS has helped some retirees to set up fish farming ponds. Recently, we received a visit from the General Director of the ANA to find ways to strengthen this partnership and to encourage as many people as possible to get involved in this very profitable and promising activity.
What are your short- and long-term goals and plans at a national and sub-regional level?
AF: Our short-term objectives are specific. This is to ensure self-sufficiency in sugar for Senegal in the context of environmentally friendly production. This could help boost job creation in the region and fight massive youth underemployment, even though the CSS has made huge recruiting efforts in recent years. For this, we will quickly need new land (just over 3,500 hectares) to cultivate sugar cane in the desert.
Given the sugar supply is in deficit in the ECOWAS region, Senegal has exceptional potential to be the main exporter of sugar in the sub-region. A clearly stated political will enable CSS or other nationals to consider creating a second sugar company, drawing on the knowhow and experience acquired by our teams.