In an industry immediately associated with Brazil, one of its most solid and committed sugar and ethanol plants is raising the level of industry. Reuben Ford examines why all eyes are on Usina Estiva.
With production divided equally between sugar variations and alcohol for fuel and gasoline mix, Usina São José da Estiva mills 3.2 million tons of sugar cane each harvest.
Estiva also generates energy to power the plant and for resale. It is an important part of the local and national economy and an associate member of one of Brazil’s biggest sugar and ethanol cooperatives, Copersucar.
For almost 50 years the family-run plant has opened the way for subsequent transformations in an industry that promises future potential. As the global market for combustion fuel heats up, Estiva is setting the pace.
“We are on display for the sugar and ethanol industry – there is greater pressure for us to manage ourselves carefully; we do not invest in expansion and new projects without security that they will succeed,” explains Sandro Henrique Cabrera, Director of Usina Estiva.
Sugar versus Security
Certainty about an investment in sugar cane harvests seems to be an oxymoron. Varying rainfall and climate changes greatly affect outcomes and the Brazilian government offers no guarantees for agriculturalists.
“Harvests can be 10 percent above or below predictions and many new mills falter due to lack of experience and qualified staff,” Cabrera explains.
Founded in 1964, Estiva has accumulated the experience of not only harvesting cane in Brazil, but also the challenges of an erratic economy and changing government styles.
Estiva is still owned by the entrepreneurial family, who invested private funds in the plant. Today, financial stability is one of the company’s greatest differentials. “Technology and staff training have been our main focuses of spending, both are equally important in assuring continued success,” Cabrera says.
Thanks to this strategy, Estiva has grown by 150 percent in the last four years. Adjusting planting and sugar/alcohol production accordingly, the company achieves annual revenue in the region of $180 million.
“Exact yearly figures depend on individual harvests, the sugar to alcohol production ratio and variables such as climate and national economy,” Cabrera qualifies.
The 250,000-square-meter plant in Novo Horizonte, 400 kilometers from Brazil’s biggest city São Paulo, mills sugar cane from 35,000 hectares of plantations. Financial stability and experience then allow Estiva to plan production.
Cabrera exemplifies: “Recent regulations to the anhydrous alcohol content of gasoline in Brazil, have increased our alcohol production.”
In fact, production at Estiva is typically an even balance between sugar and alcohol.
The plant has a capacity of 1.2 million liters of ethanol a day, of which 800,000 are hydrated alcohol used as fuel and 400,000 anhydrous alcohol added to gasoline.
Adhering strictly to food health and safety requirements, Estiva produces 4 million sacks of crystal sugar each harvest. “Our unique quality is known in Brazil and abroad,” adds Cabrera.
Estiva has storage for 110 million liters of ethanol and 1.6 million 50-gram bags of sugar.
As early as the 1980s, Estiva used the by-products of ethanol production to produce a biomass that can serve as high-protein animal feed. Production waste known as bagaço is burned to produce energy.
The fibrous bagaço biomass that remains after sugar cane is crushed to extract juice is used as a primary source of fuel for the mill, with energy to spare. From the year 2000 Estiva used excess energy for cogeneration, providing electricity to be sold to the consumer electricity grid.
“Our aim in all processes at the plant is to be as fully automated as possible,” Cabrera says. The cane harvest is 100 percent carried out by machines.
Estiva also offers digital tracking of production through an online application, which shows harvest and output figures and details of processing. “Nowadays there have been enormous developments in agricultural technology,” he adds.
As one of the world leaders in sugar and ethanol production, Brazil has been instrumental in the development of new related technologies. Software is developed abroad but tested by Brazil. Cabrera elaborates: “It is not our focus to develop technology but to test and work with suppliers to improve and adapt it to the market.”
Advances in industrial and agricultural technology for sugar cane have greatly improved production and efficiency – confirmed by Brazil’s mills and industry, which are recognized worldwide for their contributions.
“The boom in the sugar and ethanol industry three years ago promoted investment in the sector and our situation affords us the opportunity to purchase the latest technology. We concentrate, not on expansion (although we don’t rule out the possibility of a second mill) but on maximizing the capacity
of our plant and professionals,” Cabrera says.
Estiva employs 1,900 people in the mill and during harvests.
The company is now an associate producer of the Copersucar cooperative. The association has brought infinite advantages: “We can focus on production and Copersucar commercializes our produce and supports us,” Cabrera affirms. Copersucar is presently looking at new technology and processes that will be recommended to its associates.
Sustaining the Future
Estiva re-uses effluents and promotes environmental and social programs that aim at providing a better future.
Since 1995 the plant works with a closed water circuit, economizing and recycling water and using dry-clean processes for sugar cane. Waste which cannot be recycled is disposed of in accordance with industry legislation.
Energy-independent Estiva generates 42 megawatts of energy an hour and around 45 percent is sold to the consumer grid.
“Social responsibility has always been a priority for Estiva. We are committed to improving the social conditions of our staff and our community. Novo Horizonte now has 40,000 inhabitants and we are proud to be directly instrumental in its growth,” Cabrera continues.
In every sense an example to the industry, Estiva’s focus on perfect performance has guided the company through economic challenges. Inflation, fluctuating exchange rates and internal economic struggles permanently threaten Brazilian business, making a traditional, solid company a sign of success.
“Good products, good practice, good future,” Cabrera concludes.