Varsity dons' cotton ginning innovation big win for farmers

Portable micro-gin. The micro gin can process up to 2 tonnes per day. [Nanjinia Wamuswa] 

In 2020, a group of four senior lecturers from Kirinyaga University embarked on a groundbreaking venture to innovate a portable multipurpose cotton micro-gin, aimed at separating seeds and lint from raw cotton.

Led by Dr Denis Muchangi, Dr David Kabata, Dr Grace Kiiru, and Dr Agnes Mutiso, all seasoned educators, this initiative sought to empower farmers to maximise their earnings by selling lint and seeds separately, rather than raw cotton.

Their inspiration stemmed from a call to action within President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four Agenda, specifically addressing challenges in food security, affordable housing, manufacturing, and affordable healthcare. Universities were urged to contribute solutions, prompting the team to focus on manufacturing and address the pressing issues within the cotton industry.

“We came together and chose manufacturing, specifically to solve problem in cotton industry since farmers were facing challenges in ginning.The gin was to assist farmers add value to their raw cotton at farm level,” explains Dr Kabata.

Lecturers then wrote a proposal and applied for financial support to make a micro gin, luckily, the government through National Research Fund (NRF) gave them Sh20 million to start the innovation.

Dr Muchangi shares, resolve to go for the micro gin came after their survey that revealed, in early 80s in Kenya’s cotton industry had started off well but later went down due to poor prices, lack of ginning services and the influx of second hand clothes into the country.

“In our observation, we realised there were few huge ginneries working in areas such as Makueni, Kitui and Nyanza, thereby limiting the number of farmers seeking gin services in other areas. So, ours was help more farmers access gin services in their areas,” Dr Muchangi says.

Speaking after confirming the fully functional of the machine, Dr Kiiru recalls the innovation’s bumpy road, of over three years.

“The development of commercialised prototype has gone through various stages, taken numerous trials of assembling the concept, experimenting several times, optimising until now we have a fully functional gin,” she shares.

Dr Kiiru lauds the micro gin, saying its purely very affordable innovation and once up-scaled, it will be accessible to farmers across the country. In the meantime, the micro gin is being tied at piloted in two counties - Mwea in Kirinyaga and Mbeere in Embu County. 

“It has been a process coming up with the innovation, starting in 2020. The initial stages were not so promising because the challenge was at sometimes not fuel efficient, energy efficient and low quality production,” recounts Dr Muchangi.

However, he assures that the current micro gin is excellent, energy-efficient, and powered by a small generator fueled by either petrol, diesel, or electricity. They are still researching how it can be powered by solar energy or operated manually by hand.

Currently, the focus is to ensure that every 10 farmers have access to a small gin. Dr Kabata reveals that a kilo of raw cotton sells for Sh 50, while lint costs Sh 250 per kilo. Despite this, farmers are left with the seeds, which they can sell or use to make animal feed and extract oil.

Weighing 65kg, the micro gin can process up to 2 tonnes per day. While current production levels in many areas stand at 2 acres, the lecturers are optimistic that the innovation, coupled with the motivation provided by ginning services, will encourage more farmers to embrace cotton and increase productivity.

They believe that cotton farmers will achieve total independence and economic self-reliance, leading to rural development, especially in arid and semi-arid areas where cotton is predominantly grown. Farmers can use lint to make threads and fabricate garments.

Dr. Grace emphasises the importance of inclusivity in rural areas, where women can engage in activities such as weaving, while youths and men extract oil and produce animal feed. She explains that the demand for cotton is way below what the country can produce, with Kenya’s cotton production standing at 28,000 bales annually, far below the required 140,000 bales.

The lecturers clarify that the innovation is not intended to replace existing ginneries but rather complement them by motivating more farmers to venture into cotton farming. Dr Kiiru appeals to the government to ensure the supply of quality seeds and pesticides to farmers, as pests remain a major challenge affecting cotton production.

They also received support of Sh30 million from the Fund for Innovation Development in France to pilot the project. Despite facing material shortages as a challenge, Dr Kabata remains optimistic about the rising demand for cotton, especially with the government’s plan to reduce the importation of second-hand clothes and focus on locally made garments.

The lecturers advocate for the easing of regulations on ginning to encourage more farmers to enter the industry. Balancing work and researching the innovation has been challenging, but Dr Muchangi acknowledges the support received from Kirinyaga University, particularly from Vice Chancellor Prof Mary Ndung’u, in providing workshops, facilities, and technicians.

He considers the innovation an important milestone, demonstrating that local innovators can produce their own machines and create value for farmers, who play a crucial role in development. The micro gin will add value at the local level and increase revenue collection by producing cotton for export and domestic use in the country.

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