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How to make Kenya’s cotton sector blossom

Kenya’s cotton industry, once one of the country’s main foreign-exchange earners, declined substantially following liberalisation of the sector in 1991.

According to a recent report by the Institute of Economic Affairs, a non-governmental body based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, “continued synthetic competition, diminishing world prices, introduction of cheap imports of second-hand clothes and diminished cotton profitability” are among factors that dealt a blow both to cotton production and the textile and clothing industries.

However, efforts are now being made to address problems bedevilling the cotton sector, including a government-led campaign under the auspices of “Kenya Vision 2030” — an initiative launched last year that focuses on sectors central to addressing poverty by 2030.

Since cotton does well in areas with low rainfall, it has the potential to reduce poverty in the arid and semi-arid lands that make up 80% of Kenya, authorities say. The crop is grown in five of the country’s eight provinces.

At a meeting held in Nairobi last week, more than 60 farmers from across the country, representatives of the private sector, government and NGOs also discussed challenges confronting the industry — not least the high cost of production.

“One spends a lot of money farming, yet what you get after harvesting is very discouraging. I spend about $217 in farm inputs on my half-acre of land. Last year I harvested 300kg of cotton, which I sold for $0,30 per kilo [$90 dollars in total]. Where is the profit?” asked Leonora Were, chairperson of West Kenya Cotton Growers.

Such difficulties have prompted certain farmers to abandon cotton, she told Inter Press Service. “When we started as a group, we were more than 2 000 farmers; now we are only 600. The rest fell out because of the difficulties in cotton growing.”

Low yield

According to the Cotton Board of Kenya, about 350 000ha in the country are suitable for cotton production and have the potential to yield an estimated 260 000 bales of lint annually. However, cotton is only being cultivated on 25 000ha at present, with a yearly lint production of 20 000 bales.

Other farmers have tried to cut costs, in part by stopping use of pesticides and the like that are said to account for 40% of the total cost of producing cotton. But this, in turn, has resulted in low yields.

“The 2030 strategy needs to intervene where costs are concerned. The cost of pesticides is very high … Besides, farmers in Kenya are operating without certified seeds. The strategy must address a seed certification system to ensure that farmers have access to quality seeds,” noted Peter Kegode of TechnoServe, a Washington-based organisation that helps poor farmers in rural areas of developing countries.

The shortage of ginneries, where seeds and dirt are removed from cotton, presents additional difficulties.

In earlier years, ginneries were owned by the government. However, the onset of liberalisation saw many close down. There are at present 24 ginneries that are privately owned, only 60% of which are operational.

“In most places there are no ginneries and farmers have to walk for days looking for a place to sell their cotton,” said David Masika, owner of Makueni Ginneries in the Eastern Province. Ginneries that are working face high electricity costs and problems associated with obsolete technology.

Clothing and textile

Kenya’s textile and clothing industries are also in need of resuscitation.

According to the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, a government body, the industries rose in prominence after independence in 1963 to become the country’s second-largest employer after the civil service by the1980s. This was largely due to a lack of competition from foreign firms.

Liberalisation resulted in an influx of second-hand imports that have overwhelmed the domestic market. Kenyan firms have also had to compete with cheap Chinese imports that flooded into the country, particularly after the expiry of the Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA) in December 2004.

In effect since 1974, the MFA allowed countries to set quotas on textile imports to protect domestic textile industries. It was phased out under World Trade Organisation policies aimed at freeing up trade in textiles.

David Nalo, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Trade and Industry, maintains Kenya’s textile sector can still thrive, through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) — a claim that some dispute.

This United States initiative enables 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa to export various goods, including textiles, to the US, duty free — something that has seen Kenya’s share of textile and garment exports to the US grow over the years.

Agoa was established in 2000, and is set to expire in 2015. Sub-Saharan African countries are able to benefit from the Act if they can demonstrate progress in setting up market economies, observing the rule of law and protecting intellectual property — among others. — IPS

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Joyce Mulama
Guest Author

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