AS THE City of eThekwini grows beyond expectations towards King Shaka International Airport, hectares of sugar cane fields that for a century yielded cane and presented picturesque views for travellers along the coast are being turned into office and industrial parks and residential areas.
For Tongaat Hulett, which owned most of the agricultural land north of Durban, the encroaching development had posed a danger to sugar cane yields, and the future of its mills and other companies down the value chain of sugar processed products was threatened.
However, Tongaat Hulett CEO Peter Staude says all agricultural sectors in South Africa are facing the same challenge as urbanisation gobbles up valuable agricultural land faster than towns and cities are able to plan and prepare for it.
The company claims to have foreseen the threat, hence it moved to counter the loss of agricultural land to urban development for the northern corridor towards the airport, and inland towards Pietermaritzburg, over the years by increasing the number of cane growers in outlying areas such as Eshowe.
The company teamed up with the province in encouraging rural communities to plant sugar cane in a project called Operation Vuselela (revive).
Tongaat Hulett expects the area available to feed its mills to reach about 12,000ha this year after 9,696ha were planted in 2010 and 2011 by small-scale cane growers, including women.
This has compensated for the estimated 6,000ha that would be gradually lost to development over the next 20 years, says Michael Deighton, a property development executive at Tongaat Hulett.
Mr Staude says his real concern is that the country is being forced to lose valuable agricultural land near many towns and cities "in an obsessive rush" to address housing shortages, without a vision and proper development plans.
"We have always understood that land use has to change, and hopefully for better economic development and national growth. With proper planning, we’ve tried to set an example showing that land conversion from agriculture to development can be comprehensive and integrated while keeping the business viable," he says.
Therefore, they satisfied the desire to define Tongaat Hulett’s constructive role during the conversion of agricultural land to industrial or residential use.
The company started planning in the 1990s — even before the plans for the new international airport and the trade port in the province became a reality. It has worked with the province and the eThekwini Municipality in the planning and exploration of new designs of potential industries, residential and shopping complexes to be built.
"We got the people with the right skills for modern urban planning to look at various options and consistently chose the best urban infrastructural designs to make sure the new city developments adhere to international trends including climate change and green economy," says Mr Staude.
"We want to leave a legacy by introducing change similar to innovation recently shown in the eco-city of China," he says.
The Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city is a collaboration between the governments of China and Singapore to develop jointly a socially harmonious, environmentally friendly and resource-conserving city in Tianjin, about 150km from Beijing. The design tackles environmental protection and resource and energy conservation, and serves as a model for sustainable development for other cities in China.
Mr Deighton says that instead of just selling land, the strategy has been to play a role in town planning and property development "in order to leave a footprint with positive economic development spin-offs" in areas such as tourism. Hence they work with the provincial team for strategic infrastructure projects and the Presidential Co-ordinating Committee "to find the best plans for industrial, office and residential development".
As a result, Tongaat Hulett has engineered developments such as Gateway, Umhlanga Ridge, Kindlewood Estate, Sibaya, Zimbali, Bridge City and Cornubia.
In the process, it found ways to protect wetlands while emphasising indigenous landscaping.
"We do not stop harvesting cane until the trucks roll in to start earthworks for the new development. That is why you see sugar cane still existing side by side with urban development."
Mr Deighton says commercial development has to be balanced with the need for food security.
After all, the highly intensive use of land in cities has many implications for food production and supply. There is a danger that municipalities would support development because conversion of agricultural land to commercial development increases the value for municipal revenue per hectare of land.
• Radebe was a guest of Tongaat Hulett.