TRALAC - Trade Law Centre

Kenya: Farmers embrace cottage industry to maximise earnings from cotton

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Source: Business Daily (Kenya)

In a crafts-room at Ahero Teacher’s Training College in Kisumu County, Rose Arianda sits on her spinning wheel threading a long piece of string from the mass of cotton balls around her feet as she hums along the rhythm of the wheel.

All around her, the room is littered with workers on similar machines working with cotton fibre at different stages of production.

The workers at the various rooms and spinning wheels are members of Nyando Cream, a community based organisation that is fast gaining popularity in the district.

“Nyando Cream is an example of how the cottage industry can be used to bring the cotton sector in the region back to its former glory,” said director Joseph Orlale. Cream is an acronym for Cotton Rehabilitation and Management.

After independence cotton farming in Nyanza, just like in the rest of the country, was left to small scale farmers. The crop yielded good returns until the mid-80s.

Many farmers have blamed liberalisation of the sector in the 1990s, and importation of second hand clothes, for the downfall of the sector. For the region’s cotton farmers, the death knell was sounded by the closure of The Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi) and Rift Valley Textiles (Rivatex).

Kicomi, for example, used to consume 150 bales per shift which translates to about 75 tonnes of cotton. The factory worked three shifts each day.

Direct access

The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) agreement gave Kenyan cotton producers direct access to the US, one of the world’s biggest textile consumers.

This was meant to increase the country’s muscle in cotton production by encouraging farmers to maximise cotton farming on the assurance of a ready market for their produce.

The reverse happened as liberalisation of the market spelt doom for local ginneries and textile mills, which obtained most of their seed cotton from farmers.

“Local industries could not get enough cotton to operate, production capacity fell and they gradually ground to a halt,” said Mr Orlale.

He said that this caused a ripple effect that resonated worst on small scale farmers, most of who sold off their cotton to middle men at throwaway prices leading to massive loses. “This greatly demoralised them, most of the farmers shifted to subsistence food crop production,” he said.

Nyando Cream was formed against this backdrop in 2000. The association started with a self-help unit that sought to encourage widows in the region to adopt sustainable income through cotton value addition.

Initial funding

“Most widows did not have income generating activities and whiled away their time knitting,” said Mr Orlale. “We decided to set up a cottage industry where we would provide them with necessary skills and equipment to do their knitting on a large scale.”

The organisation obtained initial funding for spinning wheels and an assortment of weaving looms from the Japan International Corporation Agency (Jica) and entered an agreement with Ahero Teachers’ Training College where Nyando Cream would use classrooms as premises for its cottage industry. The next step of the programme was obtaining raw materials, which involved convincing farmers to adopt cotton production.

“Farmers in the region were unwilling to adopt cotton given the experience they have had in the past. In addition, most of them had taken up production of food crops such as maize and sweet potatoes and were unwilling to shift,” Mr Orlale said.

Overcome challenge

To overcome this challenge, Nyando Cream encouraged farmers to intercrop cotton with other crops.

“Most of the farmers in the region depend on rain fed agriculture and have no fall back plan in case rains fail. We made them understand that inter-croping was the solution,” he said.

Faced with widespread crop failure associated largely with climate change, more than 200 farmers adopted inter-cropping other crops with cotton mainly because of its resistance to drought.

For Mr Orlale, who is also the regional representative to the Cotton Board of Kenya, the process of breathing new life into the cotton sub-sector in Nyanza is an uphill task. “The biggest hurdle is changing people’s attitude and restoring their confidence in an industry with a history of disappointment,” said Nyando Cream secretary general Joseph Omongo.

“In addition, farmers in the region lack proper organisation and lose out on essential facilities like credit and field extension services.

Over the years, farmers lost faith in the government and cooperatives, and most adopted an everyone- for-himself approach to farming.”

Nyando Cream buys cotton from its members at Sh65 per kilogramme. It is taken to ginneries where seeds are removed for pressing into vegetable oil, while cotton fibre is sent to the workshop. Here, the women spin the fibre into threads and dye it according to required shades. Once ready, the threads go through the looms where it is turned into carpets, cardigans, towels, and scarves.

“We reach out to women in the region, offering them training on weaving and spinning,” said Ms Arianda.

“Each training module takes between six weeks and two months, up to 30 apprentices can be taken in per session.” Goods made at the workshop are displayed at regional exhibitions and sold at local market centres. The facility also gets special orders from hotels in the region. Proceeds from sale of the products are distributed to members, depending on one’s individual input. Farmers in the region have welcomed the government’s move to commercialise BT Cotton. However, they said, the innovation was long overdue.

“There is a lot of mis-information in relation to genetically modified organisms and most farmers are being misled,” said Mr Orlale.

In the case of BT cotton, for example, Burkina Faso has been growing the variety for several years now and their cotton industry is very advanced, he said

Practical solution

BT cotton has been hailed as a practical solution to reliance on pesticides and reversal of low yields. Bollworms are the leading pests and BT cotton has been implanted with a gene that protects crops from the them.

This spares natural insect predators in the farm ecology and further contributes to non-insecticide pest management.

“Politicians are making a lot of noise about GM without the correct information to back them up, this scares farmers,” said Mr Orlale.

The association also hailed the current focus on small and micro enterprises as the engine to grow the Kenyan economy.

“It is now easier for small scale farmers to secure credit and seed money to invest in cotton farms.”

With increased climate change and renewed interest in promoting agri-business in the country, Nyando Cream hopes that the centre will become an example of how cotton farming can be used to build capacity for sustainable economic development in the region and the rest of the country.

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