Kenya’s potential to play big in the global league of cotton producers remains untapped as farmers grapple with political, economic, and climatic challenges to stay afloat.
Despite the enormous potential for cotton and the apparent comparative advantage Kenya has within US, European Union, and Comesa, the country has done little to assert itself in the World market and has instead remained a net importer of textile and clothing.
If recent government actions are anything to go by, then Kenya could be adopting reform initiatives aimed at increasing the competitiveness of the cotton sector and textile industry in general.
The success of such efforts could alter the matrix and catapult cotton to be the country’s main forex earner. With favourable working policies and management, the crop could spur serious economic growth with farmers having reason to continue with the business.
Production of cotton in Kenya declined from a peak of 70,000 bales in the 80s to about 10,000 bales in 2018 while domestic market demand currently stands at 140,000 bales. Data confirms that the country has a potential to produce up to 368,000 bales of lint annually. While the potential land is 400,000ha, only about 25,000ha is being utilised.
Under irrigation, farmers produce an average of 1500kg/ha against a potential of 3500kg/ha. There are currently about 40,000 cotton farmers, while the industry can support well over 200,000 farmers.
The national target is to increase production to 108,000 bales from the current 81,600ha by the end 2022. However, cotton production faces key constraints including high-cost of production occasioned by high input cost and poor farm practices.
Lack of adequate quality seed, poor market, infrastructure and information, non-functional ginneries, inadequate access to credit and prohibitive cost of insect management have been cited as major constraints in increasing production and growth of this vital sector.
With the recent government decision to lift the ban on Bt-cotton variety, Kenya’s hope of attaining its full potential in the sector could be beckoning.
According to experts, cotton remains the only crop that is prone to pests with up to thirty-five known species affecting its wellbeing. The African ball-warm is the most notorious and destructive in their category.
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Researchers, however, argue that BT cotton variety has undergone extensive research and has proved to be resistant to the destructive African ball-warm and can withstand hostile climatic conditions.
That it is drought resistant is great news because most parts of the country with potential for cotton production relies more on rainfed agriculture and experience prolonged periods of drought which has previously affected crop yields and lowered income.
President Ruto’s executive order that lifted the long-term ban on BT cotton is a boon to the sector and the most appropriate step at this time. Farmers in the cotton belt stretching from Siaya, Homa Bay, Lamu, Tana River, Embu, Kitui, Meru, Machakos, Parts of Busia, Kirinyaga and Makueni among other regions now have a reason to troop back to their farms.
In the budget policy statements (2018 and 2019), the Government undertook to support the textile industry through the development and commercialisation of Bt-Cotton hybrids. This is expected to make pest management of the crop more efficient, cost effective thus translating into reduced cost of production and better yields.
Promulgation of the Kenya constitution 2010, devolved agricultural extension services to the counties. However, cotton appears to have attracted lesser priority as cash crop in most of the 24 counties which have the potential to the crop hence cotton farmers receive little or no support in terms of extension and advisory services.
In addition, the linkage between the farmers and ginners and other channels that once existed for transferring expertise to farmers have been abandoned. Most of the cotton processing ginneries in the country closed due to mismanagement of the cooperative societies which owned them that resulted in seed cotton marketing challenges.
Other factors include technological challenges and increased competition from cheap synthetic alternatives to cotton in the world market that made cotton farming unattractive to most farmers in the county.
Revitalising the cotton sector should thus be one of the government’s key development and industrialization initiatives to be implemented in the Asal regions, but also in other high potential areas with suitable land for production of cotton.
Contrary to the situation in neighbouring cotton producing countries, Kenya has a well-developed textile industry that requires constant supply of cotton lint. However, these industries are either closed or have been operating below capacity, due to the low supply of cotton lint. The future is bright.
-The writer is a communications expert in the energy sector