Sugar is indelibly associated with the history and development of Mauritius, making it what it is today in terms of its mixed heritage, its economy and of course, agriculture. From its introduction by the Dutch, to its cultivation by the French and the British, the sugarcane has turned the sugar industry in Mauritius into its first source of revenue for decades, if not centuries.
Past to present
Sugar was a product of slavery under the French rule and when slavery was abolished in 1835 on the island, the British had recourse to indentured labourers from India. As the cultivation of sugarcane grew under both slaves and indentured labour, the number of mills increased and reached its peak in 1858 with 259 factories over the island. Today, through the process of consolidation and mechanization of labour and production, this number has fallen to 7 currently and is set to go down further to 5 in the following years to reduce costs.
The sugar industry blossomed in the past in part due to the Sugar Protocol which guaranteed preferential prices for Mauritius and due to the Sugar Action Plan, a government initiative to boost the sugar industry.
From sugarcane to sugar
The production of sugar at factory level is made more sophisticated by incorporating efficiency measures, minimising costs and controlling the whole process in a rigorous manner to ensure maximum yield. However, the process of extracting sugar from the sugarcane is simple in principle and can be broken down as follows:
- The sugarcane stalk is cut from the plant into small pieces;
- They are crushed using a mill to extract the juice;
- The fibre residue is called bagasse and is burnt to generate electricity in power stations;
- Lime is added to the juice to remove non-sugar constituents in the form of solids. These solids sink to the bottom and are removed and further processed to be used as fertilizers.
- The remaining juice is then concentrated via evaporation.
- Crystallization is then carried out under vacuum at a high controlled temperature;
- Sugar crystals are separated from this thick mixture by passing it through a spinning cylinder.
- The syrup left behind devoid of sugar crystals is called molasses. It is still rich in sugar content – about 30% – which cannot be economically extracted. Molasse is used in distilleries to make rum.
After the production of sugar from the factories, lorries with special crates are loaded and head to the Bulk Sugar Terminal in Port-Louis to be unloaded. The Bulk Sugar Terminal is a modern storage area that carries sugar directly to the hold of ships docked nearby via conveyor belts. It is the third biggest in the world, quite a feat for such a small island.
Special unrefined sugars
Mauritius is also famous for its production of special sugars. These are unrefined sugars and come in 15 different forms:
- Dry Demerara
- Standard Demerara
- Fine Demerara
- Golden Fine Demerara
- Dark Muscavado
- Light Muscavado
- Molasses Sugar
- Coffee Crystals
- Special Raws
- Extra Dry Raws
- Dark Brown Soft
- Light Brown Soft
- Golden Granulated
- Golden Caster
- Fine Golden Caster
Dark Muscavado is rich in molasses which makes it sticky and ideal for fruit cakes. Molasses Sugar as its name suggests has the highest molasses content which makes it nearly black. 100g of it provide 90% of the daily iron requirements. Golden Granulated Sugar is free-flowing and has a buttery taste ideal to make biscuits.
L’Aventure du Sucre, a museum dedicated to tracing the history and development of the sugarcane in Mauritius, has a shop where these special sugars can be sampled and bought.
Pioneer in sugar technology
The sugar industry of Mauritius has always been a pioneer in the cultivation of the sugarcane and the production of sugar. Back in 1868 in La Gaité Sugar Factory in Mauritius, Dr Edmund Icery was the first person in the world to produce white sugar. Nowadays, this innovation in the field of sugar technology continues, due in part to the small and limited land surface on which to grow sugarcane crops when compared to other sugar-producing countries such as Brazil and India. Sugarcane varieties with higher sugar yields and more efficient methods of extraction of sugar from the cane are regularly investigated, led by the Mauritius Sugar Industry Research Institute (MSIRI). As a result, although the land under sugarcane cultivation in Mauritius has dropped over the last few decades, the production of sugar has remained on average stable.