During the 19th Century, several agricultural co-ops, including cotton and rubber, were tried in Fiji. But none, except sugar cane survived. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) and the Australian Sugar Company, which took an interest in Fiji during that time and endeavored to grow cane in several places. There were some 36 sugar mills located at several places in Fiji. The CSR built its first mill at Nausori in 1882. The second CSR mill was built at Rarawai in 1886. Then came the Labasa mill in 1894. Lautoka was the last mill to be built by the CSR in Fiji, and it was built between 1902 and 1903.
Cane planting for the Lautoka mill began in 1902, and some 10 thousand acres were planted that year. The Lautoka Railway system was established together with the Rarawai rail system by 1908. The railway line to Sigatoka was built around 1912. The first crushing season for the mill was 1903, when it crushed 134,246 tonnes of cane in twenty six and a half weeks and produced 14,500 tonnes of sugar. The crushing rate achieved was 42 tonnes per hour. The first one million tonne crop for Lautoka was achieved in 1959. That time the mill was crushing at about 200 tonnes an hour and the cane crop for that year was 1,660,271 tonnes, which produced 160,220 tonnes of sugar.
Until 1909, CSR grew cane on its own plantations using indentured Indian Labourers. The abolishment of the indenture system in 1916 created a severe labour scarcity, and by 1924 the sugar industry faced the problem of labour shortage which required new initiative.
Over the years millions of dollars have been spent on upgrading the tramlines and the transport system. Upgrading of the mill, the sugar sheds and the terminal and loading systems, including the expansion of the cane belt. In the last ten years Lautoka mill has spent more than $20 million on its capital expenditure programme with a view to improving its plant liability performance.
Despite setting lower objectives in recent years for the Mills weekly crush (90% of the capacity), except for Penang, all the remaining Mills failed to achieve their targets. The 4 mills have a joint throughput capacity of 145,000 tonnes per week.
The budgeted throughout was reduced to 131,402 tonnes, which is 90% of the capacity. The Mills achieved 87% of the lower objective set for the Mills. In overall comparison to capacity, the mills achieved only 80% of their throughput.
Furthermore, on analysis of individual mills performance, it is ironical to note that the Lautoka and Labasa Mills which have recorded substantial investments in the past few years have failed to perform to expectations. The Labasa Mill achieved 81% and the Lautoka Mill 83% of their own set lower objectives. The 4 mills have no doubt barely managed to crush the much lower crop of 2.61 million tonnes within a reasonable season length.
This low weekly crushing rate and poor recovery has forced the Fiji Sugar Corporation Ltd to invest approximately $86m to improve the mill performance by 2009/2010 crush. Assistance has been sorted through government of India for the upgrading of the mills.