In 1977 the Government of PNG decided to make the country self-sufficient in sugar. It was keen to reduce PNG’s dependence on imported goods and it needed to find alternative fuels in the wake of the early ‘70’s international oil crisis.
An area of government land in the Ramu valley, known as death valley for its virulent malaria, was dedicated to the project. When the company was set up in 1979 it inherited an established cattle enterprise and took on the leasehold of some 26,000 hectares of land of which 7,500 hectares were to be dedicated to sugar. The venture involved investment of one hundred million kina of which 35 million was subscribed by shareholders and 65 million by offshore lenders. Ramu is a private sector company but the Government is the biggest single shareholder and now owns 49%.
The main sugar plantation and factory are one hundred and thirty kilometres from Lae, the second biggest town in PNG. Ramu employs a total of 2,300 people of which 800 are on permanent payroll and the rest are temporary unskilled manual labourers engaged in cutting, harvesting, weeding etc. Of permanent staff, there are highly skilled engineers on the processing side and highly qualified scientists in the plant breeding, hybridisation and biotechnology research unit.
Paradoxically while Papua New Guinea is the original source of a considerable proportion of the strains of cane sugar currently in production worldwide, there was no processing plant available for commercial production in PNG. The cane sugar grown in the villages is largely resistant to pests and diseases but does not have the correct sugar content for commercial production. Ramu has brought in thousands of hybrid varieties from Cuba, China, India and Australia in order to develop a truly PNG hybrid that will grow well in the Ramu valley. The research team at Ramu Sugar is run by PNG nationals all of whom have specialist qualifications in the sciences of biology, entomology and plant genetics.
The processing side involves a ‘heavy engineering’ milling facility and a sophisticated processing operation. Chemical and food technology process control is critical at all stages. In 1995 Ramu built a K2 million refining factory. And there is no waste. A fter the juice is extracted the fibre is burnt to generate steam which drives the electricity generator for the whole site. Fermented molasses is processed into ethanol and sold to fuel companies like BP. Ramu uses it in all their vehicles. It is also made into industrial alcohol and exported. The effluent is held in a pool and pumped back onto the fields to irrigate new cane. Finally some molasses is mixed with cattle feed to produce lick blocks for the cattle. The cattle love them.
In the last ten years the company has spent about 17 man-years in overseas training. It recruits 40 apprentices a year, trains them and sometimes loses them but it has the consolation that it is adding skilled people to PNG. The work force is well looked after. Employees have free houses, electricity, water, sports facilities, TV, library and schools. The company also has the only doctor and ambulance in the area and willingly makes them available when there is need.
The company is proud of its record in social improvements for the people of Ramu valley. 700 children go to school and achieve a pass rate of 70-80%, the highest in PNG. The level of malaria used to be 95% now it is down to 5%. This remarkable drop has been achieved by issuing health information, nets and chemical repellents, and by getting rid of standing water and encouraging people to wear long-sleeved clothes. It has gradually brought about a change in attitude.
Ramu sugar not only supplies the entire sugar needs of PN G but has begun exporting. Last year it exported 10,00 tonnes of industrial raw sugar to the United States. It is also producing 30% of PNG’s beef from 18,000 head of cattle. In just under twenty years Ramu Sugar has justified its investment and is proud of its contribution to the progress of Papua New Guinea.