State pegs hope on Bt cotton to revive sector

Modern cotton spinning equipment at Rift Valley Textiles (RIVATEX) in Eldoret. [Kevin Tonui, Standard]

Early this week, President William Ruto waved a new cotton price card to farmers in Busia county in a drive aimed to win back the growers who had abandoned the crop.

President Ruto said farmers would now sell a kilo of cotton at Sh250 from the current rates of between Sh50 and Sh60.

The offer came weeks after the government distributed 17 tonnes of Bt cotton seeds, a genetically modified variety, to boost production and cut the pesticide cost the farmers incurred when doing the conventional breeds.

The President’s rallying call was hinged on one major factor, the country’s top fabric producing factory-Rivatex, was operating below its optimum level and was yearning for cotton at that premium price.

“The new prices will take effect courtesy of a contract that will be signed between the county (Busia) and Rivatex,” said Ruto.

Charles Lagat, cotton programmes manager at Rivatex told The Smart Harvest that they have assured all farmers of a guaranteed market at the factory’s gate. 

A Rift Valley Textiles (RIVATEX) employee works on one of the machines at the factory in Eldoret. [Kevin Tonui, Standard]

“The amount of cotton produced across the country cannot meet our demand, that is why we are encouraging more farmers to grow the crop so that we can run at optimum levels,” he said in a media interview.

Steady supply cotton

In June last year, the firm’s general manager for corporate services Patrick Nyaga said they were receiving 3,000 bales monthly against a capacity of 20,000, translating to heavy losses.

To cut on the losses, the company has also contracted thousands of farmers from cotton growing areas who majorly produce Bt cotton to help get a steady supply of the raw material.

Their recruitment drives are focused in Eastern, Central, Nyanza, Coast, Western and Rift Valley regions.

This comes even as the latest report by the Agriculture Food Authority  (AFA) on cotton indicates that a total of 21 counties registered poor cotton production in 2021, with 10,641 hectares under the crop. 

This area, the report says, produced a total of 1,297 metric tonnes of seed cotton, which was a much lower production than targeted 6,086 metric tonnes. 

“Though recorded as one of the lowest cotton production seasons, the Lake region counties of Homabay (224 metric tonnes) and Siaya (191 metric tonnes) were some of the best performers, as they experienced good rains which coincided with planting, which was timely undertaken. The region also received seed at the right time during the period under review,” says the Cotton Annual Report of 2021.

Even though the area under the crop was higher during the period under review by eight per cent (from 9,837 hectares to 10,641 hectares), compared to the previous year,  this increase did not translate into the anticipated higher production in Bt cotton due a combination of many factors during the period under review. Production was in fact lower by almost 62 per cent.

Sensitisation programmes

The report cites unfavourable weather, delayed seed delivery, illegal cross-border trading, poor crop husbandry, poor adaptability of the crop and pest infestation (mealybug) as factors that cut in on anticipated production.

Of the 21 counties Busia was rated number eight overall with a production of 36 metric tonnes a figure the county aims to double with its ambitious sensitisation programmes to encourage farmers adopt the early maturing Bt cotton.

The county played host to the launch of the first-ever genetically modified Bt cotton in 2020 joining other six African nations who were already commercially practicing it.

After four months the results at the Alupe University demo farm showed about 90 per cent of seed survival and each plant had about 50 balls with the number expected to increase.

Busia Agriculture executive Dr George Mukok said by labeling revival of cotton farming his flagship project, Busia Governor Paul Otuoma had lined up deliberate measures to return the sector to its glorious days of the 1980s.

“We have managed to convince thousands to adopt Bt cotton and are doing some 11, 252 acres of the cotton and are targeting 42,000 acres by the next season,” Dr Mukok says.

Mukok says they adopted the Bt variety from the conventional types like KSL for it was genetically improved to resist infestation by the African bollworm, the single most destructive cotton pest in the country.

The county feels that the new buying prices of Sh250 per kilo of cotton will cut in on illegal cross border trading that was cited by the AFA report which stated farmers from Busia and Bungoma were illegally exporting to Uganda, owing to high prices offered for the crop there.

Farmers say conventional varieties yielded 500 to 700kgs per acre compared to the 1,000 to 2,000kgs when doing Bt cotton.

“I get some value for my efforts after adopting Bt cotton as what I could get from my farm has more than doubled. It is also noteworthy that we today have extension services and subsidised fertiliser from the county and national government, we pray that this continues,” says Emily Ejakaiti, a farmer from Teso North Busia.

Mercelyne Olima is among the team of fresh extension officers tasked by the county to oversee the revival of cotton farming by visiting farmers at the grassroots to ensure they embrace best practice.

The AFA cotton Report 2021 lauds such initiatives saying there is need to strengthen group approach to cotton farming, upscaling extension service provision to cotton farmers, providing them with affordable credit and enhancing their abilities to deal with pesticides.

Kalro statistics show that the average yield of cotton in the country is 572 kg/hectares, far below global average. The data shows that cotton is mainly grown by small-scale farmers in marginal and arid areas, on small land holdings averaging about one hectare.

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