HAVANA TIMES, July 10 (IPS) – Pulling out the stops, Cuba is seeking to diversify its exports, but it’s not an easy road. The country’s technology is obsolete in many of its industries.
The crisis that began in the 1990s has meant obstacles to the development of new exportable products, and there already exist important producers of everything – or almost everything – making market penetration a complex undertaking. Nonetheless, the present global crisis is forcing the country to pick up the pace since it urgently needs to increase its foreign revenues.
The Ministry of Iron and Mechanical Industries, founded more than 30 years ago, oversees a dozen groups of executives that direct around 200 industries. A good portion of these have outlined strategies for the rescue of longtime exportable products and the search for possible alternatives by applying new developments that result in greater value added.
For decades, Cuba received technology from the now defunct Soviet Union. This year, in the island’s province of Holguin, a factory belonging to the Industrial Machinery Group (GIMAC) exported three sorghum harvesters. These were created experimentally for Russia’s Slaviansky Agroindustrial Complex, which produces pure liquid sugar from “sweet sorghum.”
“Sorghum is a plant with characteristics similar to corn. It’s grown in Europe and India for animal feed, and there are even experiments for its cultivation taking place in Cuba,” explained GIMAC business specialist Marcelino Gutierrez to the magazine Metánica.
Sorghum can tolerate both drought and damp soil better than most cereals, and it grows well under a wide range of soil conditions. It responds favorably to irrigation, achieving excellent yield with little watering. It requires a minimum of 250 millimeters of water during its growth cycle, and moderate yields can be obtained with 350 millimeters. To achieve high yields, however, the demand for water varies between 450 and 600 millimeters, depending on the cycle of the hybrid and environmental conditions.
Through a study of different varieties it was possible to obtain so-called sweet sorghum. Scientists with the Slaviansky Complex in Russia created a technology using a process similar to that employed in the milling of sugar cane. This allows the sorghum juice to be extracted and – thanks to a molecular type of physical-chemical method – they can separate sugar’s component substances: sucrose, glucose and water.
However, having the technological capacity to produce sugar from the little-used raw material was not enough. The Russian company lacked the technology for automated harvesting and was forced to use European harvesters that didn’t fully accommodate the specific characteristics of sorghum.
As Gutierrez explained, “German harvesters, for example, cut the sorghum into very small pieces, which caused a process of acidification of the juice and didn’t allow its storage for more than a few days,” before milling.
The search for existing technologies for high-yield sorghum harvesting failed to identify equipment that could take advantage of the process for producing greater quantities of juice.
In the middle of the investigation, a team member recalled that Cuba had developed a factory in the 1980s for the production of sugar cane harvesters using technology from the former Soviet Union. Inquiries revealed that that factory remained active and had continued to manufacture sugar cane harvesters.
Pursuing that path, in January 2008 a delegation from the Russian complex visited Cuba. The group was made up managers, trades-people and scientists from the Boronezh Agricultural University, which was linked to the technological process. The exchanges took place under the coordination of the Cuban embassy in Moscow and the island’s Chamber of Commerce.
The visitors studied the characteristics of the Cuban harvesters, keeping in mind a kind of technology that would allow them to carry out the automated harvesting of sorghum.
After several technical exchanges, in April 2008 the Slaviansky Agroindustrial Complex made an official application to Cuban authorities for the purchase of three Kortep 3500 harvesters.
“This is new-generation equipment, of which two had been manufactured through prototypes,” said Gutierrez. “These were exported and are cutting cane in Venezuela. Because of the machines’ characteristics, the Russian managers believed they were the technology most fitting for harvesting sorghum,” the specialist in exports added. In addition, the Russians asked to work jointly with the Cubans on a modification process to adapt these machineries to cut sorghum.
“Sugar cane is harvested with a separation between furrows of 150 centimeters, while with sorghum the maximum distance is 70 centimeters. This is why the cutting nose of the Cuban machines had to be enlarged to cover three furrows. We had to change the characteristics of the machine to match those of the plant,” Gutierrez explained.
On the other hand, he added, although the shaft of sorghum resembles that of corn, it is less dense and weighs less than sugar cane. Because of this, the specialists had to adapt the vegetable mass collecting mechanisms, an internal process of cutting, transferred through the transporters of the machine and the extraction into the container truck, to ensure shafts didn’t get left in the field.
“In turn, the team of engineers at the Holguín Sugar Cane Harvesters Factory carried out a working visit to Boronezh, in south-central Russia, where they visited fields and verified the characteristics of the process,” he pointed out.
With this new knowledge, the technical modification of the equipment was designed and the production process begun. “From April until the end of July, in about 115-120 days, starting from zero, an international purchase-sale contract was fulfilled. This involved importing attachments such as motors, hydraulic components, tires and metals; and our having to process, fit out, assemble and deliver to the port on August 2 — according to the terms of the contract — the three modified KTO Kortep 3500 harvesters in response to the demands of the buyer,” Gutierrez explained.
Once finished, the harvester machines were transported from Holguín to Havana from where embarked. Until that moment the process had proceeded with the wind to its back, but a Caribbean hurricane stopped the machines in the Bahamas, preventing them from arriving on the arranged date, which would have allowed a longer trail period.
According to Gutierrez, “Despite the inconveniences due to weather, in October the machines made it to the Boronezh region, to the town of Buturlinovka, where the sugar factory and sorghum fields are located.
By telephone, we received news that the equipment had been tested on 25 acres that had been reserved for them and that they cut the sorghum well.”
More Than Exporting
The process was achieved in a very short period and can be considered a tremendous accomplishment by the technicians, who demonstrated that Cuban industry can indeed establish and complete its goals, in short periods, producing technologies and products of high value added.
“To achieve in such brief time the conception of the initiative, the organization of the production outline – piece by piece, attachment by attachment –, then assembling the equipment, testing each one of the attachments separately as well as the dynamics of the equipment, demanded extra from all links of the process.
To realize that objective, evidently the factory applied practically its entire work force, laboring without rest,” noted the specialist of the Agricultural Machinery Group.
“To achieve a symbiosis between mechanics, welders, metalworkers, engineers, technicians, auxiliary staff and the management, constituted an example of how when a community unites and offers its intelligence and organization — even with old equipment, obsolete technology, and lathes with many years of use — but applying its ingenuity and innovations, results like this can be achieved.”
Gutierrez sees the main achievement of this operation it is not simply having exported three harvesters, but also having demonstrated that quality harvesters and technologically competitive equipment can be produced for export as well as for the domestic market, where there is plenty demand.
This operation was able to open the path to new orders from the distant town of Buturlinovka – so why not further? In this case, the clients sought out the suppliers, but it could be the inverse: Cuba could continue offering the world its possibilities to respond to the demand for equipment and services, which would return in the form of greater revenue. By converting these still isolated examples into daily practice, the country could increase its overseas sales, which would help to reverse the current imbalance in its foreign trade.
A Havana Times translation of the IPS original in Spanish.