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Mwea BT cotton to unlock billions

Dr. Charles Waturu, Principal Researcher of the Bt cotton project at its trial farm in Mwea, Kirinyaga County last week.


New money, estimated to hit more than Sh200 billion in the next five years is set to flow into parts of Mt. Kenya, lower Eastern, Coast and Nyanza following approval to growing Bt Cotton, a crop that was once Kenya’s second-biggest employer, starting March next year, after 15 years of research and protest from environmentalists.

The adoption of the new cotton variety sets Kenya at the league of countries like India, Pakistan, Brazil, China, and United States which are the world’s top cotton producers to feed raw materials into the ever-increasing global textile industry.

Globally, research shows textile market size is projected to reach a market value of Sh123 trillion by 2025, nearly 10 times the size of the Kenya economy today, driven by population growth, rising disposable income levels, and rapid urbanization in developing countries.

The new development means that areas that are generally disadvantaged to grow high rainfall consuming crops will now have a cash crop as the new variety does not require a lot of water, has an in-built pest control mechanism and matures in four months.

The approval for planting the cotton has come after President Uhuru Kenyatta piled pressure on key government departments, which have delayed approval of its growing citing lack of political support amid environmental concerns, despite massive loss of income as a result of this delay.

For Kenyatta, the revival of the cotton industry also serves his legacy purpose as it presents an exponential opportunity to double the size of the manufacturing industry, which is part of his Big4Agenda.

For 15 years now, in the flatlands of Mwea region in Kirinyaga County, low-key agriculture research has been taking place. In the middle of Kenya’s largest rice-producing irrigation scheme, scientists have been battling day and night to come up with the right variety of what is known as Bt Cotton.  

The battle appears to have been won. In March next year, massive production of seeds will start. By mid-2022, farmers across the country will start cultivating, setting the stage for the creation of new 700,000 direct and indirect jobs, reducing Kenya’s fabric imports to nearly zero and boosting the now Sh41.5 billion annual Kenyan exports to the United States which are largely textile goods.

Bt Cotton essentially means a cottonseed variety which has inbuilt pesticide in the form of proteins. When certain insects digest the plant, they die. This minimizes chances of loss of crop due to pests. The variety has also other advantages; it does well in low rainfall, grows faster with an acre producing more crop compared to the non-Bt variety.

“It is the end of an 18-year wait. The variety will first be released to farmers in dry areas for seed multiplication. Then, those seeds will be shared with farmers across the country in areas suitable for the crop.”


Cotton is a non-food crop. But the opportunities it offers to Kenya are equally impactful, from the income of the sale of raw cotton to employment opportunities at the ginneries that semi process it and textile industries that turn them into various types of fabrics.

In the 1970s for instance, cotton was the second biggest employer in Kenya after the public service. In countries like India, Pakistan, and Brazil, cotton is one of the key drivers of economic growth. This is because of the high demand of the fabric to make clothes for the growing population across the world.

Today, Kenya is one of the beneficiaries to the duty-free access to the U.S market known as AGOA. Most of Kenya exports there, which reached more than Sh40 billion last year, are in the form of clothes, manufactured at various Export Processing Zones (EPZs), most prominent of them being at Athi River.

However, to make those clothes, nearly all of the fabric used by the EPZs is imported, a reality that denies local rural economy billions of shillings in revenue. The problem though is that there is no cotton in Kenya to make the fabrics.

“Successful implementation of this measure is expected to increase revenue from Sh3.5 million to Sh200 billion in the next five years, create 500,000 cotton related jobs and other 100,000 from the apparel sector,” said Dr. Waturu.

“It benefits the country specifically the smallholder farmers through the realisation of better yields, higher profits from lower pesticide costs, increased cotton output, improved cotton quality, and increased export revenues,” said Dr. Waturu.

Waturu said the cotton industry in Kenya collapsed in 1985 when the country was producing 70,000 bales per year but this has fallen to 28,000 bales. It was a victim of the World Bank and IMF-induced reforms which liberalized agriculture and paved way for the importation of second-hand clothes. Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans lost their jobs as a result.

Dr. Waturu described Bt Cotton as any variety of cotton, genetically enhanced to protect itself against pests, specifically the African Bollworm, which is the most damaging pest in cotton. Local research has shown that Bt Cotton yields three times more than conventional varieties and takes 130 - 180 days to mature.

He said for the traditional variety, a farmer can only harvest 250 kilos of the crop while the Bt yields stand at 7,000 kilos per acre.

Part of the delay in implementing the Bt Cotton farming has been fear over its safety with critics saying it is genetically modified and may lead to negative effects on the environment. But Dr. Martin Mwirigi, a senior researcher at KARLO headquarters in Nairobi said BT technology is the most tested technology hence no reason for fear as its information is widely available.

“Everybody wants to confirm the safety and that is what the World Health Organization and FAO through what we call a coded commission established standards and guidelines on how to maximally utilize this technology.”

“So, when you go and check, you will find that there are guidelines to look at risk assessments, there are many things that people who are against technology have talked negatively but have never been substantiated.”

“What we are seeing today and the farmer is the opportunity lost over the years and we can’t postpone that kind of aspect as we go along,” he said.

Presidential intervention

The urgency of implementing the farming of the Bt Cotton and the loss already suffered as a result of the delay prompted President Uhuru Kenyatta to issue the order in October last year to concerned government departments to ensure its growth is started before April 2020, giving the initiative the much needed political support.

“Cotton farming was once a major source of income and livelihood for many people in the region. As such, I have instructed the ministries of health, agriculture, and trade, industry, and cooperatives to work together and come up with a quick mechanism to revive the production of cotton, including the possibility of farming Bt cotton,’’ said the president.

As part of that process, the president in June commissioned the revamped Rivatex textile factory in Eldoret town, expected to anchor the processing of the cotton into fabric. The new processing plant, which was modernised at a cost of Sh5 billion, is expected to create over three thousand new jobs.

“Rivatex alone assures our farmers at least 100,000 bales of lint per year. With estimated consumption of other textiles mills, we project demand of over 140,000 Bales of Lint per annum, not including export possibilities,” the president said.

Two other textile mills, the Nanyuki based Mount Kenya Textiles (Mountex) and Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi) are also being revived at a cost of Sh1 billion.


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