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State should breathe life into cotton sector

By Isaac Kalua | Published Mon, December 19th 2016 at 00:00, Updated December 19th 2016 at 00:16 GMT +3
Shadrack Kiptanok at his farm in Kapsiya village in Salawa Baringo County on August 22, 2015. He is among the only three remaining cotton farmers in Kerio valley after more than a thousand farmers quit the venture due to poor prices. (Photo: Kipsang Joseph/Standard)

Between 1984-85, Kenya’s cotton production peaked at 38,000 metric tons of seed cotton. Thirty-two years later, Kenya is producing only 15,700 tons of seed cotton, creating about 5,240 tons of lint. This tumbling spiral must serve as a wakeup call to the policy makers and cotton farmers. Because Kenya needs double the lint being produced, it ends up importing the deficit.

Cotton provides yet another example of a lucrative local market that doesn’t optimally benefit small scale farmers. This market is even more rewarding because it is inclusive of US through the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA). There should be a bridge between this market and small scale farmers so that they can voluntarily return to cotton farming in their multitudes.

It is telling that in most rural enclaves like Kaw’ongo in Kitui and Butere in Kakamega, you will rarely come across cotton in farms. But you will never miss to catch sight of maize, beans and a host of traditional vegetables. Food crops achieve a simple purpose of placing food on our tables. But cash crops that don’t place cash in our wallets become completely anathema to farmers. Cotton still has such a negative perception among majority of farmers and it is time to change that.

On the policy front, the CS for Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Willy Bett nailed what needs to be done during a visit to Kwale last month: “Since the inception of revival initiatives, the government’s emphasis has been on enhancing strong relationships with key stakeholders such as the farmers, input suppliers, market agents, ginners, spinners and textile millers, in order to boost self-regulation and also promote not only production but also value and consumption of cotton.”

It is mandatory on government to employ its clout, financial muscle and political will to build these strong relationships that the CS spoke about. According to the Cotton Development Authority, there are 350,000 ha in the country suitable for cotton production, with a potential production of 50,000 tonnes annually.

To realise this potential, the government must give small scale farmers reason to either revive or commence cotton farming. This government effort, whether through subsidies or credit to farmers, should be tangibly rooted in policy and not political declarations. Gratefully, over the last four years, the government has spent 20 billion US dollars on railway, road, energy and water.

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All these four areas set a tremendous foundation to support agro-processing and therefore, crops like cotton should be a primary beneficiary. Cotton must also benefit from the 600 million people population with a $1.35 Trillion Gross Domestic Product of the existing trade economic blocs of EAC, COMESA and SADC.

The ultimate litmus test of policy success towards cotton revival will be if more and more small scale farmers start planting it in their farms. Think green. Act green!