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The sweet business of sugar cane farming in Nigeria

The sweet business of sugar cane farming in Nigeria

Nigeria has favourable conditions for productive sugar cane cultivation, but sugar yields and processing remain low compared to global averages. However, the Nigerian government aims to expand domestic sugar production significantly by 2023 to reduce dependence on imported sugar. This drive presents lucrative opportunities for investors and farmers considering entering Nigeria’s sugar cane sector.

This in-depth guide covers everything you need to know about starting and running a profitable sugar cane farming business in Nigeria.

An Overview of Sugar Cane Farming in Nigeria

Sugar cane farming has a long history in Nigeria, especially in the northern regions. However, domestic sugar production only meets about 2% of local demand. The country relies heavily on raw and refined sugar imports to meet its large appetite for sugar and confectionery.

But Nigeria has naturally favourable conditions, including ample fertile land and water resources, for sugar cane agriculture. Current yields per hectare remain below 50% of achievable yields globally. As such, there exists immense potential to increase productivity and profitability in sugar cane farming.

The Nigerian government introduced the Nigeria Sugar Master Plan to expand local sugar production to attain self-sufficiency by 2023. This master plan aims to increase hectarage under sugar cultivation from 70,000 ha to 150,000 ha and sugar processing output from 75,000 metric tonnes to over 1 million metric tonnes annually within ten years.

Why Sugar Cane Farming is a Smart and Lucrative Agribusiness in Nigeria

Here are the top reasons that make sugar cane farming in Nigeria a worthwhile business venture:

  • Rising domestic sugar demand: With a population of over 200 million and growing confectionery consumption, Nigeria’s sugar demand exceeds 2 million metric tonnes annually and continues to rise fast.
  • High returns on investment: Cash crop sugar cane has higher returns per hectare than most other crops. It offers attractive margins as both a cash crop and a raw material crop.
  • Government incentives: The federal government introduced tax breaks and credit incentives to encourage private investment in sugar production.
  • Import substitution gains: Domestic players can capitalise on over $600 million spent annually on imported sugar. Local production creates jobs and saves valuable foreign exchange.
  • By-product opportunities: the bagasse from sugar milling supports the co-generation of heat, power, and biofuels. Molasses have uses in distilleries and livestock feeds.
  • Sustainability benefits: sugar plantations supply biofuel feedstocks while enhancing food security through intercropping with food crops.

In short, strong market fundamentals coupled with supportive policies make sugar-related agribusinesses highly profitable in Nigeria currently.

Suitable Regions and Conditions for Sugar Cane Farming in Nigeria

While sugar cane grows across all agro-ecological zones in Nigeria, some regions provide more favourable conditions:

Rainfall: Sugar cane requires between 1,500 and 2,500mm of annual rainfall, fairly distributed all year-round. The humid south and mid-belt regions meet this requirement.

Temperature: Warm and sunny conditions with average temperatures of 21°C to 27°C are most suitable. Colder Abuja/Plateau climates slow growth.

Soils: Deep, fertile, well-drained alluvial soils with good water retention capacity are ideal for high yields. Clay loams and sandy loams with a pH of 5.5 to 8.5 suit cane best.

Sunlight: Bright sunlight with a duration exceeding five hours daily is vital. Cloudy or overcast skies hinder photosynthesis and reduce sucrose content.

Based on these parameters, suitable states include Kwara, Niger, Adamawa, Taraba, Benue, and Kogi in central Nigeria, as well as Edo, Delta, Rivers, Bayelsa, Cross River, and Akwa Ibom states in the south.

Selecting the Best Sugar Cane Varieties in Nigeria

Choosing high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties adapted to local conditions boosts productivity. Some notable sugar cane species grown in Nigeria include:

Co. 453: A semi-early-maturing, vigorous, thick-stalked Indian hybrid with good sucrose content (over 14%) and high tillering capacity cultivated across northern cane-growing regions.

Co. 6907: Another fast-growing Indian hybrid gaining popularity for its wide adaptability, resistance to pests, and high yield potential of over 100 tonnes per hectare.

Co. 997 is an excellent choice for late planting; it matures early and possesses tolerance to major sugar cane diseases in Nigeria.

Co. 975 is a recent resilient, high-fibre hybrid from Cuba with good ratooning ability. It has optimal juice quality and retains high sucrose levels across seasons.

NCo 376: A widely grown, high-sucrose Nigerian variety resistant to smut disease. It produces a flavourful juice suitable for chewing or table consumption.

Bida Brown is an indigenous late-maturing cultivar with thick stalks reaching up to 7 metres tall. It responds well to heavy fertilisation for tonnage yields.

New, promising sugar cane genotypes are continually developed locally at research institutes like NCRI and Umudike. These improved, disease-free, certified varieties assure higher productivity than old, unclean seed canes.

Land preparation methods for sugar cane planting

Proper land preparation and field layout are prerequisites for securing high yields year-on-year from sugar cane plantations. Major activities involve:

Deep ploughing: plough the field to a depth of 30-45 cm to loosen the soil for healthy root development.

Harrowing: Use disc or tine harrows for further ground pulverisation into fine tilth.

Levelling: Eliminate depressions through harrowing or planting, ensuring even irrigation.

Ridging: Form 1-metre-wide raised beds separated by shallow furrows to improve drainage.

Staking: Mark field edges and peg planting lines 1.5 metres apart, ensuring an optimal plant population.

Fertiliser application: sugar cane is a heavy feeder. Analyse the soil and apply NPK fertiliser per the recommendations before planting.

Irrigation: Install overhead sprinklers and drip lines where rainfall is insufficient and supplementary water is available.

Proper land preparation helps achieve precision in crop management practices for higher productivity.

Selecting Healthy and Viable Sugar Cane Seed Material

Sugar cane is vegetatively propagated using stalk cuttings or setts from disease-free, high-yielding mother plants. Treat seed canes before planting to boost viability.

Sett treatment: Soak setts in a fungicide solution for 30 minutes, then drain and dry under a shed.

Pre-germination: Cut setts, bundle, and partly bury under moist bagasse for 1-2 weeks to initiate shoots.

Sett size: Use 2 or 3-budded setts, 25–30 cm long and 2-3 cm thick, for optimal establishment.

Viability checks: select setts with visible healthy buds from the middle portion of 8–12-month-old canes.

Pest control: dip setts before planting in the recommended insecticide to protect emerging shoots from pests.

Healthy setts guarantee successful germination and plant stand while minimising disease transmission. Replace the seed source every 3 years to prevent yield declines.

Step-by-Step Guide to Planting Sugar Cane

Once the field is ready, adopt the following procedure for sowing sugar cane:

  • Open 8–10 inch-deep furrows spaced 1.5–2 metres apart based on variety.
  • Place treated sugar cane setts overlapping in the furrows. Avoid double setts.
  • Cover the setts lightly with soil, leaving shoot buds exposed.
  • Compact soil lightly over setts and water immediately after planting through furrows.
  • Fill furrows gradually as shoots emerge fully in 2 to 3 weeks.
  • Topdress remaining fertiliser 1 month after planting, taking care not to damage shoots.

Timely planting at the start of the rainy season guarantees the best establishment and growth. The optimal plant population is between 80,000 and 1,20,000 setts planted per hectare, depending on the desired plant stand.

Water management and irrigation practices for sugar cane

Sugar cane requires abundant moisture throughout its growth cycle. Its water needs depend on climatic conditions.

  • Rainfed crop: 1,700 mm to 2,500 mm annual rainfall fairly distributed
  • Supplementary irrigation: 1,200 mm to 1,700 mm rainfall plus 500 mm to 800 mm irrigation

Modern pressurised irrigation systems, like drip systems and sprinklers, achieve over 90% efficiency in water application. Flood irrigation also suits sugar cane. Apply irrigation at critical crop stages:

Germination phase: Ensure adequate, uniform moisture for seedling establishment.

Tillering stage: Boost shoots per plant through timely watering.

Grand growth period: maximise cane or sugar yields with adequate water 45–120 days after planting.

Maturity stage: prevent moisture stress and weight loss near harvest.

Drain excess rainfall through furrows to prevent waterlogging, which increases disease susceptibility near maturity. Moisture stress during grand growth and maturity phases lowers sucrose accumulation, reducing cane quality significantly.

Strategic moisture conservation approaches like mulching with crop residues, straw, or plastic films also help tide over dry spells between irrigation and rainfall events. Adopting pressurised irrigation combined with moisture conservation enables year-round cultivation, intensifying productivity per unit of land.

Integrated Nutrient Management Strategies for Sugar Cane

Sugar cane rapidly depletes soils of nutrients with high fertiliser requirements. Strategic nutrient management includes:

Soil analysis: assess soil fertility status through lab testing before planting.

Organic manures: Incorporate well-decomposed farmyard manure, compost, pressmud, etc. into the soil before planting.

Inorganic fertilisers: Apply NPK fertiliser split in three doses at planting, tillering, and the grand growth stage.

Foliar feeds: spray liquid manure blends or seaweed extracts during moisture stress to aid growth.

Biofertilizers: Seed or soil inoculation with Azospirillum and Phosphobacteria fixes nitrogen and boosts the availability of phosphorus.

Crop rotation: Rotate sugar cane with leguminous plants to fix nitrogen.

Balanced nutrition is key to realising yield potential. It also strengthens canes against pests and diseases.

Controlling Weeds, Pests, and Diseases in Sugar Cane

Weed control: Timely weeding using hoes or cultivators prevents crop-weed competition, especially 45–60 days after planting. Pre-emergent herbicides effectively control weeds in the early crop stage, while paraquat helps control weeds during the grand growth phase.

Insect pests: early shoot borer and stem borer attacks severely reduce yields. Spray recommended pesticides at initial infestation signs. The release of parasites like Trichogramma also controls bores biologically.

Diseases: Major sugar cane diseases are smut, red rot, wilt, and grassy shoot. Adopting resistant varieties, crop rotation, clean seed material, and prophylactic fungicide sprays prevent their outbreak. Rogue out and destroy severely infected plants immediately.

Wildlife pests: rats and monkeys inflict heavy losses on sugar cane. Employ physical barriers and traps and population reduction methods to curb such wildlife pests.

Ratoon Management for Enhancing Sugar Cane Re-growth

Ratooning or allowing re-growth from the previous crop’s stubble offers great advantages for sugar cane growers through:

  • Savings in land preparation, planting, and crop establishment costs
  • Early maturity by 2–3 months compared to a newly planted crop
  • Higher recoverable sucrose as roots are already fully developed
  • An increased number of harvests from the same planting further spreads costs.

However, ratoon crop yields tend to decline after 3–4 cycles due to pest infestation, poor tillering, and the accumulation of dry leaves. Adopting best ratoon management practices eliminates these problems for better economics:

Thorough field sanitation: remove and burn all trash and dead leaves after the harvest of plant crops and ratoons.

Prompt harvesting: Avoid over-maturity by adhering to optimal harvesting schedules.

Stubble shaving: Prune stubble to ground level soon after harvest to facilitate tiller emergence.

Off-barring: Slash secondary shoots regularly on barren stalks to promote uniform tillering.

Gap filling: plug gaps through replanting. 2-3 budded setts to maintain full stand

Light earthing-up: earth-up soil around the base of rat stools to induce better tillering

Supplementary fertilisation: top dress nitrogen in splits matching crop demand

Retaining irrigation: prevent moisture stress during the early re-growth stage.

Good re-growth dependent on healthy mother stools sustains ratoon productivity for many years. Assess the need for replanting after 4-5 ratoon cycles once yields start declining despite best efforts.

Determining the Right Time for Sugar Cane Harvest

Timing the sugar cane harvest correctly is crucial to achieving high commercial cane sugar (CCS) values, optimal juice quality, and higher ethanol yields. Use these yardsticks to determine crop maturity:

  • Crop age: Harvest the plant crop 12–16 months after planting, depending on variety and location.
  • Dry matter: Harvest when foliage dry matter reaches 32–36%, signifying peak sucrose accumulation.
  • Brix level: The brix reading is 20–22° using a refractometer.
  • Top degeneration: The yellowing and drying of upper leaves indicate readiness for harvest.
  • Cane appearance: ripened canes display a visible wax bloom with a narrowing stalk girth.
  • Weather change: the onset of cooler nights triggers sugar accumulation, while heavy rains promote sprouting and rotting. Harvest canes immediately before major weather or seasonal transitions.

Well-timed manual or mechanical harvesting minimises field losses for the best economic returns. Delays beyond the optimal stage cause sucrose inversion, lowering sugar recovery.

Sugar Cane Harvesting Methods and Post-Harvest Management Practices

Manual harvesting using cane knives is labour-intensive but avoids stalk damage or losses associated with mechanical harvesters. It comprises cutting stalks close to the ground, stripping dry leaves, and piling canes evenly for loading. Employing rhythmic gang labour and tally systems boosts harvesting rates.

Mechanical harvesters enable faster field clearing by uprooting entire clumps using rotating blades. However, topping increases smut infection, while higher soil contamination and compaction are concerns. Improved harvester designs are overcoming these limitations incrementally.

Bundling and immediate haulage of fresh-cut canes to mills is imperative for the best juice quality, sugar recovery, and prevention of rapid weight loss. Mill delivery delays beyond 48 hours of cutting stages result in sucrose inversion, lowering processing efficiency significantly.

Maintaining harvested fields free of trash and sprouts through slashing and spreading residual biomass combined with prompt fertilisation and earthing-up promotes vigorous, healthy ratooning, ensuring the sustainability of yields over multiple cropping cycles.

Lucrative By-Products and Value Addition Prospects

While selling sugar cane to processing mills generates the primary revenue stream, huge potential exists for additional income through sugar cane by-products.

Bagasse: fibrous waste from crushing used as biofuel feedstock, animal fodder, or material for paper or board mills

Molasses: highly nutritious syrup obtained from raw sugar manufacture used in distilleries, pharmaceuticals, and animal feeds

Pressmud: Nutrient-rich solids from juice filtration rich in organic matter make excellent organic fertiliser.

Ethanol: Converting juice into fuel-grade ethanol offers a new income avenue as global demand for biofuels grows exponentially.

Investing in integrated processing allows sugar cane farmers to extract maximum value from every tonne of harvest, besides sustaining soil health. Collaborative arrangements with allied industries further boost revenue.

Factors Influencing Profits in Sugar Cane Production

Profitability ultimately depends on growing conditions, yields achieved, processing efficiency, and prevailing sugar prices. Major determinants include:

  • Variety: Higher sucrose content raises revenue per tonne harvested.
  • Yields: The ideal yield target is 120–150 tonnes/ha. Output below 90 t/ha impacts viability adversely.
  • Recovery rate: mills able to extract over 10% sugar provide better payments.
  • Transportation costs: farms nearer processors save substantially on cane haulage expenses.
  • By-product utilisation: well-developed marketing channels for molasses and bagasse assure better margins.
  • Product diversification: value-added products like jam and ethanol assure cash flow stability.

Larger mechanised farms, adopting scientific packages of practices and located close to modern mills, enjoy the highest profit margins in sugar cane cultivation.

SWOT Analysis of Sugar Cane Farming as an Agribusiness Venture in Nigeria

Here is a concise SWOT analysis summarising the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for sugar cane farming businesses in Nigeria currently:


  • Rising domestic sugar demand
  • Supportive government policies
  • High yield potential is still unexploited.
  • Good prospects for integration with allied industries


  • High initial capital investment
  • Limited availability of good-quality seed cane
  • Inadequate irrigation infrastructure currently
  • Low farm mechanisation levels


  • Import substitution gains as local output displaces imports
  • Lucrative by-product utilisation avenues
  • Contract farming models ensure buybacks at fair prices.
  • Emerging trend of large corporate investments


  • Competition from heavily subsidised foreign sugar producers
  • Probability of market saturation in the long run
  • Environmental risks from climate change
  • Changing trade policies affect the sector’s outlook.

The opportunities outweigh the challenges at this nascent stage of growth. Sugar cane farming promises to deliver sustained double-digit profit margins for efficient producers in the foreseeable future.

Recommended Machinery for Modern Sugar Cane Cultivation

Investing in suitable modern farm machinery suits commercial-scale sugar cane farming.

  • Land clearing equipment: tree dozers, stump removers, and root ploughs
  • Land preparation implements: subsoilers, disc harrows, levellers, bed formers
  • Planting machines: 2 or 3-row sugar cane planters
  • Sprayer systems: tractor-mounted boom sprayers for fertiliser and pesticide applications
  • Weed control implements: shredder/chopper, tube-well attachment cultivator
  • Harvesting aids: sugar cane harvesters, cane knives, toppers, and strippers
  • Haulage vehicles: cane transport trucks, trailers, hydraulic cranes
  • Processing equipment: crushers, juice extractors, clarifiers, and evaporators

Mechanisation makes field operations efficient, reduces labour overhead, and enhances productivity. Drip irrigation, precision farming using drones and sensors, and waste-to-energy solutions offer avenues for further modernization.

Sourcing finance to fund sugar cane ventures

Sugar cane farming demands sizeable capital investments. Securing finance is imperative before venturing. Possible financing avenues include:

  • Bank loans: obtain term loans or working capital advances by collateralizing land or assets.
  • Private equity: attract angel investors or VC funds to raise expansion capital against stakeholding.
  • Contract farming: enter buyback agreements with sugar mills or food processors for assured pricing even before planting. This structure significantly lowers investment risks.
  • Government schemes: tap subsidies, incentives, and concessional credit offered for new sugar cane ventures by FMARD (Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development) under existing programmes.
  • Cooperative societies pool resources by forming farmer-producer companies to achieve the scale required for availing institutional credit and government incentives.

Careful financial planning and securing funds ahead of requirements set new sugar cane ventures on a firm path to success.


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