Kenya: To Grow Kenya’s Textile Industry, We Must Revive Cotton Farming


Cotton lint is the most important input in the textile industry. Cottonseed is crucial in the vegetable oil and animal feed industries. Cotton grows in the dry areas, in Kenya, mainly in Nyanza, western, eastern and Coast regions.

The largest producers of cotton are India, the US, China, Brazil and Pakistan with the major importers being China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Turkey and Indonesia. Is it, then, any wonder that these countries are also the biggest players in the textile industry?

Africa contributes just five per cent of the world’s cotton production with its main producers Mali, Burkina Faso and Benin in West Africa while Tanzania and Uganda leading in East Africa. Our main problems include the fact that most of our cotton is grown on small-scale farms and is perceived to be of poor quality, hence low prices. Our farmers, hence, often opt to grow other crops.

Like in the rest of Africa, the donor-driven Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and ’90s forced the government to liberalise the sub-sector, removing its support in terms of credit, ginning, provision of quality seeds, extension service and marketing functions that were undertaken by the Cotton and Seed Marketing Board.

The Kibaki administration tried to revive the sector as part of the Kenya Vision 2030, leading to the creation of the Cotton Development Authority (CDA). The investment in the sub-sector was to help the country to become a big textile and apparel industry player.

CDA estimates that 350,000 hectares is suitable for cotton growing with a production potential of 50,000 tonnes — from a low of 5,000 tonnes in 2005. Production is gradually growing but mainly through increased acreage and not productivity.

Kenya imports most of its cotton from Tanzania and Uganda for the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) manufacturers. The “Big Four Agenda” has further highlighted the need to restructure and strengthen cotton production and its related industries.

Supplied from local cotton

We would earn more if the entire supply chain – from the farmers to ginneries, spinners and textile mills to the final textile and apparel manufacturers – were all supplied from local cotton. Other measures that need to be undertaken include providing sufficient budgetary support to CDA for its internal needs and also for the supply chain.

We also need to invest in more research to produce quality seed and also ensure that the results are easily explainable to the farmers by strengthening and expanding extension services and demonstration farms or plots. We should also initiate contract farming and a credit system and update grading systems. We need to organise farmers into cooperatives besides introducing irrigation as this is more reliable than rain-fed farming, and at the same time introduce mechanisation so as to reduce costs and improve quality.

The other industry players need to take action. For example, the ginneries should invest in modern technology to improve the quality of the lint and seed. Some of the cottonseed goes back as seed to farmers and the rest into vegetable oil and animal feed production.

Strengthen the Pest Control Products Board to protect farmers from sub-standard agro-chemicals and also the National Gen Bank of Kenya to produce more high-yield varieties – like the Bt cotton recently introduced by the government. What I am proposing here is something that the government has embarked on; our job is to simply encourage and challenge it to move faster.

Cotton farming will give the eight or so million farmers in the arid and semi-arid lands an income, increase foreign exchange earnings, open up employment opportunities as the more than 50 ginneries and 60 textile mills run at full capacity and reduce imports.

But, it will require special commitment. Besides, the country would take full advantage of the trade agreements it has signed. There is nothing to stop our textile exports from doubling from $500 million (Sh50 billion) to $1 billion (Sh100 billion) within a short time.

Mr Nyagah is a former Cabinet minister.

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