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January 24, 2011

Renewed interest in cotton raises farmers' hopes in Kenya

by James Karuga

Milton Katia, a cotton farmer from Kathonzweni County in Kenya'sEastern Province, is a hopeful man.

A veteran of cotton farming since 1979, Mr Katia has lived the ups and downs of farming the fluffy crop for more than 30 years, but now says things are changing.

Cotton production in Kenya is currently soaring. In 2010, Kenya processed 49,000 bales of cotton, more than double the output in 2009, when it produced 23,000 bales, according to United States Department of Agriculture data.

Locally, demand for cotton is around 180,000 bales, making for plenty of growth potential for domestic producers.

The output in 2010 was the third best production figure ever recorded in Kenya, with the record set in 1979 when the country produced 62,000 bales.

However, after that the industry slid into disarray during the 1990s, from which it is only now emerging.

As the Cotton Development Authority (CODA) chairman in the larger Makueni region, Mr Katia says he has witnessed over 80 per cent of the farmers in the last year return to cotton farming, having abandoned the crop from 1992 after the collapse of the Cotton Board of Kenya (CBK).

Prior to the collapse, CBK regulated cotton prices and provided farmers with chemicals including pesticide sprayers. The price regulation ensured that farmers' produce was bought at a guaranteed price. But after its collapse, brokers bought the cotton at as low as Sh15 a kilo for high quality Grade A and Sh9 a kilo for Grade B. The prices were too low to sustain farming of the crop, which requires heavy chemical inputs to prevent diseases, aphids, and borers.

Results in the field were drastic, with farmers who couldn't afford chemicals harvesting as little as 5kgs of cotton per acre. The result was a mass withdrawal from cotton farming countrywide. But Mr Katia was one of the few exceptions.

"I had seen benefits of farming it in earlier times," he said.

And maize, the substitute crop, was also doing badly in the semi arid area.

However, when CODA was gazetted in 2006, it offered the prospect of a revival in cotton farming. Backed by the Agriculture ministry, CODA brought together stakeholders who included ginneries, spinners, researchers, weavers and growers.

The fresh wave of optimism that came with the setting up of CODA spurred farmers in Makueni to enrol in workshops run by the International Cotton Advisory Committee on cotton farming.

And Mr Katia, one of the 167 trainees last year, was named the top farmer from Makueni by a local farming publication.

From his 3.5 acre and, Mr Katia went on to harvest 2,550 kilograms of Grade A cotton, which he sold for Sh32 per kilo, to earn Sh81,600. He made a few more shillings by selling 28 kg of Grade B cotton at Sh13 a kilo, but had also intercropped the cotton with green grams, from which he earned an additional Sh28,000. The total was almost Sh110,000, on an initial investment of Sh15,000 in labour, chemicals and Hart 89 cotton seeds.

Mr Katia and another 350 Kathozweni farmers with a combined 2,000 acres sell their cotton to Makueni Ginnery, planting once a year in October and November and harvesting from April to August.

In 1984, when cotton farming was at its peak, 6.5 million kilogrammes of Grade A cotton was harvested in Makueni.

Today, Mr Katia projects that Makueni may produce 3.2 million kilogrammes, of which 1.2 million will come from Kathozweni.

The upgraded Makueni Ginnery, which processes around six million kilogrammes of cotton a year to produce 10,000 bales of processed cotton, each weighing 60kg, now accounts for one quarter of Kenya's cotton production.

Even now, the high costs of pest control, limited supplies of treated seeds, and difficulties in funding the buying of knapsack sprayers, chemicals and seeds, continue to act as brakes on growth, said Katia. But now "the market is there".

Business Daily Africa

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