Reunion Island is known for its melting pot, but did you know that because of its geographical position, its sugar industry has been able to benefit from major technical innovations and to pass them on to others? Reunion's sugar factories have been a crossroads for French, Mauritian, Australian and South African technologists to find innovations. Here are some of them:
In these times of dietary rigour, of a decade that wants to be (or thinks it is?) more virtuous but also more austere, the question almost touches on the intimate, each person has their own measure of sugar for their espresso, "uma bica" in Lisbon, "su tinto" in Cali... right down to the syrupy "café de ollá" from Mexico. Everyone will defend their measure tooth and nail, from those who forbid themselves the slightest gram to the generous portion of 3 lumps of sugar in an espresso. We are then no longer very far from supersaturation... Yes, in sugar chemistry as in life, supersaturation threatens us and we have to master its contours, learn to live with our little drosses and its hazards to stay in the metastable zone and avoid false grains in our journey.
Depending on your location, the sacrosanct breakfast/coffee break is not quite the same. In Mexico, the "almuerzo", a ritual in effect on every sweet shop, corresponds to a XXXL taco break in the morning, everything goes through it: "carne", shrimps, beans, cheese, chilli, avocado, onions... You ingest a caloric bomb to last at least until 15hrs... When I started, I still had breakfast on my stomach but an invitation for the almuerzo is not to be refused! Don't expect to have a work meeting with the boss or to discuss the production output, all are in solidarity with the almuerzo... "Ahorita" will be the terse answer to make you wait...
In North Africa, I used to stand wide-eyed in front of strong guys delighted to share coffee with sweets, sweets at the Plant Manager's meeting... Executives? No, kids, fighting for the last macaroon on the table with no regard for the ladies. At 5pm, to make up for the day, we meet over a pain au chocolat and a glass of mint tea. Can you imagine my Mexican friend with a loaf of chocolate, sweets and a cup of tea in his hand? Even in a parallel universe, this does not exist!
In Paris, religiously, every week, we sent to HR our need for... water for the week, it was as important as his expense management... But not just any water, the choice of brands was vast: sparkling, still, rich in Sodium, magnesium, fine bubbles... Water and Coffee impose themselves on the table of a work meeting or a board of directors. But on the other side of the Atlantic, where soft drinks are cheaper than water, soda is the undisputed leader on meeting tables.
Still, there is at least one unique sharing moment that can be found in any cane factory in the world: "When your teams have fought for more than 12 hours to get a broken mill or an imploded vacuum circuit up and running, the one who returns with the basket of victuals is expected by all. Everyone then shares the victory of getting production back on track. We then leave the oversaturation zone, exhausted but united, the smiles return, and no one will ever reproach you for the 3 sugars in your coffee.
Sugar can be blamed for many things, more often than not rightly than wrongly, but the food industry has many particularities that give it a special place in this environment. In particular, the sugar cane factories (80% of the world's sugar comes from the cane), willingly accept to open their doors to any sugar engineer curious to see other practices in other places.
In the 1990s, the Bois-Rouge sugar factory started producing "special sugars" with a wide range of colours and granulometry set by demanding customers (a jam manufacturer needs a very different sugar than a biscuit factory). This is how I wanted to better understand the "colour" issue in the manufacturing process and during my holidays I decided to spend some of my time and money visiting sugar factories in Mexico and Colombia to understand their approach. These two trips will be full of teaching:
In Mexico, on a family holiday, one of the factories that welcomed me in 1995 was Puga. That's how, in order to discover the sublime beaches of the Pacific coast, I imposed to my family detours towards these factories out of the tourist map. By "chance", 11 years later, in London, a group of traders offered me the opportunity to work with them and the PUGA sugar factory appeared in the discussion; to everyone's surprise, I was able to mention that I knew this site. Thus, a few hours of holidays lost in 1995, turned into a job placement ... My hello to Puga, one of the most innovative sugar cane mill & refinery in Mexico.
In Colombia, my so-called contact to give me access to their famous sugar industry was desperately missing when I arrived at Cali airport in January 1996. I sped angrily and anxiously to a hotel without an appointment, wondering how I was going to get out of this mess. How could I have been so naive and disembark without a plan B in Cali? My last card to play was that of an agronomist who had visited Reunion Island during an ISSCT (issct.org) workshop a year earlier, he had left his contact with me on a piece of paper because I was the only Spanish speaker who could help him with a few details and give him some of my time to visit my factory. It was a miracle! A few calls later on a Saturday afternoon and the Colombian Arabic phone was working beyond my expectations. With South American mutual aid, three of the largest sugar producers in Colombia were giving me free access to the sugar factories.
All the exchanges with the most influential technologists in these groups were of great help to me in my future career.
So working on holiday was useless? Helping someone without expecting something in return, a waste of time? Speaking several languages, tedious? Share your experiences.
March 1995, I have two sugar campaigns behind me. I am still counting my first thousands of tonnes of sugar produced under my responsibility as production manager when an "important meeting" is held with all the key players in the Reunion sugar industry. For the thousandth time, we are going to discuss the Technical Deviation (ET), this is the base, the basis of payment for a ton of cane on Reunion Island. Each country has its own system, always with the same problem: paying the right price for a weight of cane versus a quality of the product that the sugar industry has the right to expect… A puzzle in which the unions of planters make their voices heard. It is where the planter and industrialist oppose each other.
But back to this meeting, I got there early, curious to visit the place.
Too early ... a great man of sugar then made his appearance, sober in terms of dress and elegant. Eyes sparkling, he stares me up and down, a full scan without make-up, then invites me into his office for a coffee and wait. He sits down ; invites me to do the same. I introduce myself, raising eyebrows agreed, and in a harmonious and clear voice, he speaks: "So, here is before me our "successor", the one who will replace Emile Hugot and Maxime Rivière! I was curious to meet him. "
I melt in my chair like the lump of sugar in my coffee! He's having fun, laughing; between Reunion islanders, I was treated to a first-class mockery, a hazing that corresponds to a "Welcome to the sugar world". In front of me is thus standing Maxime Riviere, a sugar figure recognized worldwide ( https://www.reunionnaisdumonde.com/magazine/1001-celebrites/riviere-maxime/ ) and his companion, cited above, Emile HUGOT, is a world figure in sugar plant, Le Monsieur Sucre from Réunion; the one who wrote the bedside book of many sugar makers around the world: “Handbook of sugar cane” ( https://www.reunionnaisdumonde.com/magazine/1001-celebrites/hugot-emile/ ).
After that... you just have to expatriate far from Reunion to survive! What I did with pleasure, “LOL”… Like them, I share this technological passion for sugar and this agro-industrial environment is perhaps the only one in the world to open doors to you all over the world. Both, Emile and Maxime, in addition to being first class engineers, are passionate about optimizing sugar extraction at the mills. With a background in biotechnology, for my part, I naturally turned to sugar processes ...
Maxime Rivière died suddenly a few months later. Today, I have worked on refineries and mills in Africa, Middle East and America … This “meeting point” thus remains a first turning point, an unexpected tête-à-tête, which has remained engraved in me so that I too can make my own way as a sugar technologist.
This first blog is written in memory of Emile and Maxime.