In 35 years, Universal Robina Corp’s (URC) sugar mill in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental, has evolved.
From being just a source of a vital food product, SONEDCO has become a tight-knit community, working, living and growing together towards a singular goal: to improve individual lives and the entire province as a whole.
“This is an ecosystem, a community of farmers, people, business and technology. URC is not just doing business here. We are a resident of this place already,” said Renato Cabati, managing director of URC Sugar and Renewables (SURE).
Recounting his first visit to the sugar mill, URC president and CEO Irwin Lee said: “You can feel the sense of pride, sense of legacy among the people there, the culture aspect of it and how proud they are of having been responsible for the growth and development of SONEDCO over the many decades.”
URC acquired SONEDCO – then known as the Southern Negros Development Corp. – from the Montelibano family in 1989. SONEDCO’s core asset then was a sugar mill that could crush 4,000 tons of sugar canes per day.
Cabati said URC’s late founder John Gokongwei, Jr. saw the need back then for a sugar mill.
“At the time, we already had a branded foods group. It needed sugar. We were manufacturing candies, ice cream and snacks. Getting into the sugar business would support the branded food businesses, and Mr John saw that,” he said.
But “Mr John” had his sights beyond running a sugar mill. “He had a vision of not only expanding the sugar mill but also of diversifying the sugar business,” said Cabati.
SONEDCO began expanding in the mid-1990s, bringing its capacity from crushing 4,000 to 8,000 tons of sugar canes per day. Over the years, it has further raised that capacity and is currently processing up to 12,000 tons per day. The expansion of its refinery stretched SONEDCO’s production to 15,000 bags of refined sugar per day.
Increasing capacity is just one aspect of its way forward, said Cabati. SONEDCO also upgraded its sugar mill with state-of-the-art technologies from Japan, Thailand and India to improve efficiency and energy use.
The mill began producing its own electricity. It built a biomass-fired cogeneration plant that now provides 19 megawatts to the national grid using bagasse, a byproduct of sugar milling, as fuel.
AN ECOSYSTEM OF FAMILIES AND PARTNERS
But it hasn’t been just about sugar production.
SONEDCO’s mill has evolved to become a fulcrum of life among the communities surrounding it.
For professional farms, it is a supportive partner. “It gives us better participation, gives us better efficiency, and gives us more money per ton that we mill,” said Luis Azcona, of San Lucas Inc.
For farmers, the mill has been a lifeline. “The income I get from sugar cane farming helped me send three children to college,” said Grace Saglaon, a member of the Alliance Association.For those working for SONEDCO, the mill has been a second home.
The father of shift supervisor Mary Kathlyn Tarroza had worked at SONEDCO as head pan in raw production.
“He rose from the ranks, from evaporator tender to head pan man. He’s happy and he’s proud that there’s career advancement at SONEDCO, and he is proud that I myself am now working for the company,” she said.
Mary Grace Cayao, an accounts payable analyst, said her father has been with SONEDCO since the early 50s, working as a driver.
“It was part of our routine when I was growing up. We’d come and see him at the mill, and later I myself wanted to work here,” she said.
“Our people at SONEDCO have a sense of optimism that is very infectious, the way they love sugar, the way they love how they grow SONEDCO. For them, nothing is impossible. They only look at opportunities, possibilities,” said Lee.
Lee added that going forward, the general consensus is that there is still room to grow..
“We talk about how big SONEDCO is and also how big it can be,” he said. The goal for now is to further expand the mill’s capacity from 12,000 tons to 14,000 tons per day.
“I know it’s a big challenge, but we hope that with all the resources and support URC is giving, SONEDCO will get there,” he said.
URC chairman Lance Gokongwei said the sugar industry overall “has shown its resilience for many, many decades”.
“We will continue to invest a lot of energy and funds in ensuring that our partner farmers attain the highest productivity and highest income they can generate from their farms. We will likewise ensure that our mills are as efficient and as productive as they can be, while investing in facilities for value-added services, such as sugar refineries, bio-mass energy production, and bio-ethanol and CO2 production,” he said.