Lamu prides itself in the fame of its battalion of coxswains in the sea and, on land, women whose penchant for, and expertise in, riding the motorbike is simply bedazzling. In the narrow streets, children flog rather submissive donkeys, the muezzin’s call reverberates across buildings whose facades spot flawless whitewash and, far off in the fields, a farmer admires his sprawling crop of cotton.
Cotton farming is one of- if not outright- the island’s biggest economic activity since the arrival of the Bt cotton seed in 2021. It has been overlooked due to a decade of a love-hate relationship with the crop.
This relationship with cotton, which grows in frost-free, hot and sunny areas, started decades ago but was halted rather unceremoniously around 2010.
Christopher Ngui, one of the large-scale cotton farmers and who is a former chairman of the Lake Kenyatta Farmers’ Cooperative Society Limited (LKFCS), has cultivated cotton here for 45 years.
“The land was virgin when we started and the yield was rewarding. But over time, we used too many pesticides which destroyed it. The bollworm was marauding in the 90s and both the yield and prices of the crop dropped drastically,” he says.
And so around 2009, many farmers on the island gave up on cotton farming and in three years, the crop had all but been cast aside.
Julius Macharia, the chairman of the Lake Kenyatta Farmers’ Cooperative Society Limited (LKFCS) says that by the time the community, which started doing cotton farming around 1975, ditched the crop, prices had plummeted to Sh8 a kilo.
The introduction of Bt cotton in 2021, which is the genetically modified variety, was met with hesitance from many farmers. The few who took it up reaped handsome returns, hauling naysayers onto the bandwagon within a few seasons.
The new genetically modified seeds were MAHYCO C567 and MAHYCO C571.
The farmers realized that their yields were way higher than ever before and that they spent less on, and sprayed less, pesticides than ever before.
“They (the farmers) were used to producing yields of 300 kgs per acre with the conventional, non-Bt cotton, the HART 89M. With Bt cotton, they were now harvesting between a tonne and 1.5 tonnes,” says Mr Macharia.
“The prices for this cotton were also higher; a kilo goes for Sh50, sometimes Sh52.” This payment, he says, is instant the amount a farmer produces notwithstanding.
Peter Keli, the manager at Makueni Ginneries Limited, has been with the farmers throughout this transition. The ginnery buys cotton from this farmers’ cooperative, which it has been doing since 2009.
He is impressed that in the two years, these farmers have been on Bt cotton, they have produced “an unprecedented 2 million kilos”.
“They used to plant 6kgs of seed for every acre. Now, they use 1.5 kgs,” he says, praising the efficiency of the Bt cotton seeds.
The ginnery at Makueni has an installed capacity of 6 million kgs but is unable to collect as much from farmers. This year, it has managed to source 870, 000kgs.
“We buy cotton from the whole country, but especially in Lamu where farmers have really gone back to cotton farming and are gunning for even more in the near future,” he says. “We are promoting the growth of the seed in many other places such as Taita, Busia, Tana River and Homa Bay.”
Simon Muguro, who is lauded for recent huge harvests, is farming cotton on 15 acres of land.
While this is an impressive feat, he is aiming to move to 30 acres, having started, in the first jittery days when uncertainty loomed, with 5 acres. So does Pauline Nduku, who farms on 7 acres but started with 1, and who says the spraying of pesticides is “ten times less” for the Bt cotton.
Another farmer, Peter Ndirangu, also known as Masaa, says that for the Bt cotton, there is nearly 100 per cent guarantee of seed germination.
“In the old variety, sometimes only one out of 50 seeds germinated. Sometimes, none. Now, every one of them does,” he says.
On his 8 acres of land, he has harvested 7 tonnes of cotton in two swoops since November 2022, the first an impressive 5 tonnes.
He is aiming to move onto 14 acres and has already paid the county government for tractors to plough the additional land. 11 acres will be used for cotton growing while on 3 he will plant maize.
The cooperative society has a demo farm on which young cotton plants bloom, alongside maize that spot a lush green, both irrigated using borehole water.
“We want the farmers to know that they must not wait for rainfall to nourish their crop,” says David Chege, the manager of the Lake Kenyatta Farmers’ Cooperative Society Limited.
But the Bt cotton will survive even without irrigation, he says, with the ability to trap dew on their hairy stems and a root system that is able to reach for water under the surface to nourish the plant.
The farmers, however, say that the availability of piped water would be a huge reprieve and would support the growth of secondary crops as well, such as maize.
The biggest challenge they face, they unanimously state, is the delay of seeds, which Mr Keli associates with “long government procurement procedures”.
These delays often lead to late planting and the interruption of the cycle hurts the yields.
“Before the April rains, the seed needs to have been available to the farmers. Some farmers are already very enthusiastic about this and are doing over 20 acres. Last season, over 4.5 tonnes of seed was planted. They now want to do more,” says Mr Macharia.
The cooperative, he says, also need fertilizer to be availed by the government, without which the yields would remain suppressed.
They hope that the governor’s field day at the demo farm will help convince him that their farms would post even better yields with increased incentives, with fear looming that the demand for the cotton seed will keep outstripping supply.
Mr Muguro also says that they keep seeking ways to avoid middlemen who would ruin the prices for the farmers. He also would love to see a ginnery built in the area “so as to remove, or reduce, the transportation costs and increase the farmers’ earnings”.
The uncertainty over how long the cotton will remain pest resistant could be a bother to the farmers, though, and the fear of reducing the length of fibre lint in the future, says Mr Chege.
But constant seed improvement will keep on addressing every new challenge that is encountered. Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation’s (KARLO) seed multiplications may also lead to a competitive non-Bt seed which will allow organic farmers an option, he says.
As the transition from convention to hybrid, non-Bt, to 50 per cent and now 100 per cent Bt cotton seed occurred, many were left behind. Some have been skeptical of Bt cotton, completely unable to take it up.
An increasingly expensive seed amid the shilling’s dwindling value against the dollar has further punished farmers as other resistant pests that take farmers back to the incessant use of pesticides threaten to undo gains.
While the old variety needed spraying several times a week, the Bt cotton is sprayed once a week, oftentimes. It is early maturing, and the 6, 000 members of Lake Kenyatta Farmers’ Cooperative Society will be competing for the next batch of seeds, with one of the members jokingly telling the chairman he will have to make enemies if some do not, inevitably, get the seed.
The ginneries the cooperative society has been supplying have offered the farmers support, including guidance on best practices.
And the farmers, glad to have finally been able to go back to farming a crop they once were in love with, are outpacing each other in the sprint to produce the highest amount of cotton.
“We used to be exposed to dangerous chemicals every so often. Now that is no longer the case,” says Mr Ngui.
Once stored, he says, the cotton does not attract pests which would make handling it uncomfortable, against a misconception that the Bt cotton leads to scratching and skin discomfort.
If Lamu were to be known for anything, it should be the sprawling plantations of cotton, the most potent indicator that our textile industry could expand greatly, supporting the Buy Kenya Build Kenya dream. In a few years, the dream could be a reality.