Reviving “White Gold” Is Key to Kenya’s Economic Growth

By Denis Gathanju,
Contributing Writer

Kenya is taking steps to revive its lagging cotton industry, which was once vibrant and employed thousands of people, generating millions of dollars in revenue.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Kenya’s textile industry was also thriving and served as a driver of the national economy. It was, at the time, Kenya’s fifth-largest foreign exchange earner and accounted for more than 24 percent of GDP. Textiles also contributed more than half of the country’s export earnings and directly employed more than 250,000 people across the nation.

The liberalization of the Kenyan economy in 1991 started the gradual asphyxiation of a sector that had once breathed life into the Kenyan economy. After more than two decades on its deathbed, however, recent government-led initiatives point to a brighter future for the industry that was brought to its knees by cheap imports from China and Asia.

The cheap imports, coupled with high production costs and low profit margins and losses, turned local farmers from planting what was known as Kenya’s white golden crop.

Under a new government blueprint known as the Kenya Vision 2030, policy is geared toward transforming Kenya into a middle-income economy by the year 2030. The Kenyan government has identified various industries that can marshal this East African nation to realizing its dream.

Poverty Alleviation

The cotton industry is one such sector that can help transform the fortunes of the economy, especially through poverty alleviation.

According to Micah Powon, CEO of the Cotton Development Authority (CODA), cotton is one of the few cash crops in Kenya that can guarantee economic and food security, especially for communities living in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALS) of Kenya.

 “Cotton thrives in what we call ‘hardship areas’ that experience little rainfall,” Powon says. “With most of the communities in these areas being dependent on cattle keeping alone, cotton presents them a unique opportunity to generate alternative sources of income.”

According to a recent survey by the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA), cotton is one of the few cash crops that could do well in the ASALS, which cover about 87% of the country’s landmass and are home to about 30% of the country’s population.

Currently, Kenya has just over 25,000 hectares (ha) of land under cotton production. This generates about 20,000 bales of lint every year. This is a stark contrast to the more than 400,000 ha of land that was under cotton production during its peak period in the 1970s and 1980s. Kenya, at the time, generated more than 300,000 bales of lint a year. According to Powon, local mills require at least 90,000 bales of lint annually.

Economic Benefits

The economic benefits of reviving the once-vibrant subsector speak for themselves, since the national economy stands to gain by tapping into the enormous market prospects presented by the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

AGOA was passed by U.S. Congress in 1999 and allows Third World economies, especially those in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to export certain products such as textiles and apparels into the vast American economy duty-free. Other economic pacts that could work for the local cotton sub-sector include the African Caribbean Pacific-European Union (ACP-EU) Cotonou Agreement ratified in 2000, as well as the expected freer textiles trade that came with the removal of quota restrictions in year 2005 under the World Trade Organization framework.

GMO Cotton

Aside from the liberalization of the economy and the subsequent influx of cheap imports from Asia, pest control was yet another factor that fueled the collapse of the cotton industry in Kenya.

Notes Powon: “Pest control alone takes between 30% and 40% of the production costs for cotton in Kenya through the purchase of insecticides. It is therefore imperative that we come up with a superior cotton crop that would cut down on these costs to boost production and earnings for the farmers.”

According to researchers at the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI), there are four main cotton pests that are known to affect the cotton crop. These include the Cotton Stainer (Dysdercus spp.), the Cotton Aphid (Aphis gossypii), the African Bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) and the Red Spider mite (Tetranychus telarius). The African bollworm is the most dreaded as it is known to cause more harm to cotton, to the extent of a 100% yield loss if left unchecked.

Therefore, through extensive research at KARI, Kenya is now ready to start the widespread planting of a new Bt cotton variety. Researchers at KARI say the new variety ensures maximum productivity because it prevents the worms from eating up the bolls that form before the plant matures, significantly increasing overall yields.

The introduction of this cotton variety, Powon says, will go a long way toward enhancing production by encouraging reluctant farmers to take up cotton farming, since it saves them more than $824 of pesticide expenses.
Furthermore, the new cotton variety means that the farmlands and the general environment remain healthy and are protected because of reduced pesticide use.

Cotton under Irrigation

Powon believes that the cotton industry in Kenya is now on an upward trajectory and that the sub-sector should be able to reclaim its lost glory within a period of three years, as the country continues to accelerate cotton production to meet rising demand.

To achieve this, CODA has developed a medium-term strategy that is mainly targeted at both small- and large-scale cotton producers across the country.

“We have developed a comprehensive cotton production handbook that is set to guide the farmers on various cotton production stages such as planting, weeding, harvesting and marketing. Aside from these, we have encouraged the cotton ginneries to adopt new technologies as most of them were still using obsolete equipment that consume a lot of power and therefore make cotton production expensive,” Powon says.

Cotton production is also transitioning from traditional rain-fed production to irrigation. Currently, CODA is in the process of putting more than 10,000 ha of land under irrigation for cotton production with the Bura Irrigation Scheme in Taveta County, and another portion of land within the Pekerra Irrigation Scheme in Baringo County is set to follow.

“With such measures,” Powon adds, “I believe that we are on the right track for reviving this industry and creating employment opportunities for the youth. The sector can employ thousands directly and thousands more in allied industries such as weaving. Even animal feed production will benefit because cotton seed cake is a major source of proteins in animal feed.”
Genetically enhanced cotton varieties are the reason for double-digit yield gains and a record production year for India, according to the country’s agricultural minister, Sharad Pawar. “Bt cotton yield was definitely better in quality and quantity, boosting production by 30% to 35% in areas it was sown,” he noted in a recent news conference.

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