Usually, news about the sugar industry is dominated by ASR/BSI. But, now in its sixth harvest, Santander is growing production every year. And while they are still not profitable, the company says they're getting there. Today, to announce the launch of its 145 day long harvest season, Santander's bosses held a press conference via Zoom. They said rains delayed the start of the crop, but there are many positive growth indicators:

David Rodriguez, C.F.O., Santander
"For us it's a new year where we are expecting between 15%-20% increase in production volume. We also thank God and Belize and the government for the opportunity of doing this new harvest. We have had some delays at the beginning of the year because of a lot of rains that delay us quite some days. Our key data for the 2021 harvest is seven hundred and fifty metric tonnes of cane - that is approximately a sixteen percent increase compared to 2020 harvest season. Seventy-five metric tonnes of sugar; thirty percent increase in production. We also expect close to 300 metric tonnes of molasses and we expect to dispatch to the national grid 37.5 kilowatt hour. The other news that we have is that this year we are increasing, expanding our export terminal in Big Creek, we are expanding our storage capacity in molasses and later in the year we are planning to expanding our sugar storage capacity. So we can dispatch larger vessels that are going to benefit not only Belize but all the stakeholders in our industry."

Santander Wants To Sell Sugar Locally

And while the company has expanded its storage facilities and export capabilities at the Big Creek Port, it someday hopes to sell its product on the local market. That's strictly disallowed under the terms of its "Designated Processing Area" agreement with Beltraide, but the company earnestly hopes it can break into this marginal but symbolically important market:

Beverly Burke, Gov't Affairs and Public Relations Mgr.
"We are a Belize company and what Jose said most of what we do is dome in our local currency. We contribute greatly to the economy and it will definitely help us to put that face to Santander by being able to operate within the very same jurisdiction that we have built and invested in. So for us it is more significant, it will lend to the need for us to really be recognize here fully. It's from that standpoint I think it's extremely crucial for us to have our product on the shelves. We have o sell. We have to move the product that we make and in order for us to do that we have to focus holistically and don't get me wrong, no means of saying that we are not focus locally. We are, it's just for us to keep at it and to ensure that that decision comes sooner rather than later that at least we can have our small portion of the Belize market."

Santander Ready For PPA With BEL

And while selling sugar locally, may be a far off, or symbolic hope, selling electricity locally is a sine qua non for the company. It has embedded power generation into its core functions, but it has not found the most willing partner in BEL.

Last year, the power company had to be compelled by an order of the Public Utilities Commission to sign a Power Purchase Agreement with BEL last year - and that still hasn't happened because BEL challenged it in court.

Today, the Santander Executives said that for them it is a win-win situation for the country, but they're not seeing it yet:

David Rodriguez, C.F.O., Santander
"The public utility commission made their analysis and they got a ruling based on the numbers and rate of return and what is better for the country and they make a ruling with a new set of tariffs. This year we are close to 40 million, so at the end this is something good for the country and a good price agreed with all the partners involved. This is energy produced in Belize. You don't have to get US currency to pay to other generator, so at the end it is something good and it got stuck between two entities and its affecting us and affecting our suppliers and our investment. because we achieve the price level that was mandatory by the PUC last season."

BEL has said that it supports signing a power purchase agreement with Santander - but wishes to negotiate with them directly and not have the PUC do it on their behalf.

Santanderís Belize Experience

And for Santander - this regulatory dispute - has been just a small part of the leaning curve for them doing business in Belize.

The Guatemalan investors came here about 7 years ago - and ran into strong headwinds of local resistance. They fought through to realise their investment vision, but today they said it hasn't been easy, or profitable:

Jules Vasquez- Reporter
"You know it is not always easy doing business in Belize, to get permits all this type of thing. If you had to Quintessentialize your experience, I know you had a very rocky start, a very controversial start but if you would just speak about the past six years, if I am right, that you all have been doing a harvest, how has your experience been? How has your rate of return on investment been? And if you knew then what you know now, would you do it again?"

Jose Rodriguez- CEO, Santander
"Very good question. I am gonna answer it like this. I came to Belize with a lot of will to work and to do things and with a lot of money. I am left with the will. Other than that we have invested everything that we have to get this production and this investment to be successful. We have had difficult years and we haven't reached the point to have a profit yet but we are very close to achieving it thanks to the hard-working team that we have formed here in Belize."

David Rodriguez- CFO, Santander
"The good news is that we have been serving our debt. Mainly the Belizean banks have most of our debt. We have been serving our debt and we have reduced our debt since we started around 10% and we have been paying on time our capital payments and our interest payments. The good news is that the company this year is entering the first year of achieving its financial independence and stability and it is going to allow the future to build and start building profit for the sponsors that have been supporting the company since the beginning."

Jose Rodriguez- CEO, Santander
"Here in Belize the investments they cost more than what you expect. You make some numbers at the beginning and at the end of the day or the year it will cost more than what you plan. One is that extra cost that we encountered here. The other thing is the production levels. The production levels that we expected were higher than what we found. I think we are going to get them over the years. The other thing was that most of the areas that we thought were ready to plant around the sugar mill are under another crop and we have to start doing some other things in order to get the farmers to plant cane and to decide to change the traditional crop that they were using. Still, we are working on that. But we are basically two years than what we planned at the beginning."

David Rodriguez- CFO, Santander
"So I think the experience has been amazing. We have a lot of stories of success from our employees and our team that makes you say it is worth it to be here."

Santander says it provides 750 jobs.

Channel 7