Cotton, Kenya’s ‘white gold’ that has been left in tatters

Once upon a time, cotton was a vital source of foreign exchange. It was known as white gold. But on Friday, when a few governors and senators met ostensibly to oppose reforms in various agriculture sectors, they did not even mention cotton.  Not that they support reforms in cotton industry.  They did not have a view, or position, on it.

Actually, without wasting time on cartel-embedding statements, this country’s agriculture sector has all along been held hostage by cartels who continue to resist farmers’ efforts to stop the fun and halt the eating culture. And they, the cartels, have their tenterhooks in both the value chain and government institutions that they have captured. The august House has not been spared either. Enough said.

So forgotten is the cotton industry that when you look at the country’s cotton belt, you see unbridled poverty, age-old failure to streamline policy in the sector, and iron-fisted cartels, which have even sold farmers’ ginneries.

So vibrant was the sector that it had some of the best football clubs in the country: Kenya Taitex Mills of Thika, Kicomi FC, Rivatex FC and Mountex of Nanyuki.

Cotton used to grow in Kisumu, Baringo, Busia, Pokot, Nanyuki, Kitui, Tana River and many other regions, and was the fifth-largest foreign exchange earner, accounting for over 24 per cent of the gross domestic  product.

High-protein meal

As the most widely used natural fibre in textiles, cotton supports a $3 trillion (Sh300 trillion) global fashion industry and is loved by leading brands. Also, cotton seeds produce a high-protein meal used to feed livestock and is regarded as the most wide-spread profitable non-food crop in the world.

In essence, the cotton belt has the potential to have livestock feed industries and employ thousands of our youth.

So why, for the umpteenth time, have we neglected our cotton belt? Let nobody say there is no market. Actually, in 2018 there was a global cotton deficit of 1.5 million tonnes from the largest exporting countries led by China, US and India.

Other countries have built textile industries by importing cotton and these include China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam where some of the leading brands Adidas, H&M, IKEA, Kering, Levi’s, Lindex, M&S, and Nike make their products.

Today, Kenya imports 80 per cent of the cotton it processes from neighbouring countries, like Uganda. Yes, Uganda. If we had a working cotton industry we could deliver to the industries within the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) where brands such as Puma, Wal-Mart, JC Penny, H&M source some of their garments from.

There was a time that factories such as Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi), Rivatex, Raymond Woollen Mills, and Thika Cotton Mills relied on our cotton. We can still do it.

Kicomi founder

When the first textile mill was opened in Kisumu in 1965, the idea was to support the regional farmers with a cash crop with high demand. That is how the Khatau Group from India, regarded as one of the oldest business conglomerates in Asia, was invited by Jomo Kenyatta to start an industry in Kenya and he laid the foundation stone for the plant on July 28, 1964.

Kisumu’s modern-day Pamba Road was named Dharamsey Khatau Road in honour of Kicomi’s founder – while the road leading to the plant is known as Kicomi Road; an indicator of how the textile industry drove fortunes in the lake city.

Then in 1969, we saw the arrival in Eldoret of Raymond Woollen Mills, which at one point was Kenya’s largest textile complex. Though not a cotton complex, per se, Raymonds was then processing wool, making synthetic suits, blankets and ready to wear garments. Its blankets were so popular and were a constant reminder of Made in Kenya products.

Raymond was followed in Eldoret with Rift Valley Textile Mills (Rivatex), which was a joint venture between the government and European multinationals. But Rivatex soon became a case study of corruption as obsolete equipment was purchased and installed.

Again, the quality of garments for local markets was inferior to those destined to international market, yet they were demanding protection from international competitors.

Before independence, cotton farming was practised by large-scale colonial farmers and but the Jomo Kenyatta government encouraged locals to grow the crop and supported the purchase of ginneries through cooperatives.

It also increased its investment in textile mills and saw to the expansion of land under cotton by sending extension services to the farms.

County governments, in cotton growing areas, have not taken advantage of the devolved function by streamlining this crop in their counties. Why? Nobody knows.

We have had many opportunities under the African Growth and Opportunities Act (Agoa) where Kenyan textiles could enter the US market. In the US, cotton is taken seriously because it was the foundation of the country’s economy.

What is required is a regulatory framework to support the industry. When the Cotton Board collapsed in 1991, the regulation, licensing and control of the ginneries was left with no institution to control it and farmers were abandoned with a crop that had turned to be the source of their poverty.

More so, the quality control of seeds vanished and farmers were left to import uncertified seeds from Uganda and when these failed, they were left with grazing fields.

Ginneries auctioned

There were various cotton ginneries across the country, which were run by these farmers under cooperatives but they were either auctioned by the banks, and Cooperative Bank led from the front, or simply collapsed and were left to rot.

After some private entities took over the farmers’ ginneries, and sold some as scrap metal, the Cotton Board was left with no role.

An institutional vacuum had, thus, been created. But, interestingly, the Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing Board was retained in the statutes, even though there was nothing on the ground and its officers continued to get salaries and board members a sitting allowance. Talk of heist.

Liberalisation caught many of the firms unawares and shortly after 1990, most of the firms in Nairobi, Mombasa, Nanyuki and Kisumu collapsed as imports replaced locally manufactured products. Those that remained started importing wool and cotton and forgot about the farmers; after the liberalisation policy which was hailed by International Monetary Fund as the panacea to our problems was pushed into us.

Soon, secondhand clothes flooded our markets at a time when the industry was starting to face a slow death. It was hoped that after the liberalisation of the sector, the new ginneries owners would support the growth of the sector and buy cotton from local farmers. But the private investors were not interested. The high-yielding seeds vanished and farmers were left with cotton that had no buyer.

How much would Tana River County gain from cotton farming? We had a huge cotton irrigation project there and in Baringo. But all these lands are being wasted. Previous whistle-start, whistle-stop formulas have not helped either. Today, cotton is under the Fibre Crops Directorate which is neither here nor there.

Once upon a time, the textile and clothing industry was the second largest employer after the civil service. In 2003, shortly after Mwai Kibaki came to power, the government while nominating various personalities for the boards of parastatals forgot that Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing Board existed. That is how far we had gone down.

Recently, the mitumba traders made interesting proposals: to be allowed to grow cotton and start their own ginneries to phase off the importation of second-hand clothes. It can be done, but only if the governors are not wasting time digging for war rather than helping the agriculture sector grow.

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