At the Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi), rusty machines remind one of a once-vibrant garment manufacturing industry that rode on the back of an equally vibrant cotton growing industry.
Then came the nineties when the factory shut its doors due to lack of sufficient cotton.
Farmers from the Luanda Cooperative Union blame their woes on liberalisation, when the government gave the green light for the importation of second-hand clothes.
“This led to the collapse of cotton farming. The ginneries are operating at their lowest output, buying the little cotton available from the few farmers who still care to grow the crop,” says Vincent Egesa, the union’s chairman in Samia, Busia County.
Ginneries in Nambale, Amukura in Teso South and Malakisi in Teso North, which were brought to their knees by low cotton yields when farmers lost interest in the crop, face a similar fate.
However, if the government were to lift the ban on GMO crops, farmers would plant Bt cotton, a genetically modified cotton variety, and the engines and machine may yet hum again, and the ginneries may witness a beehive of activity as was the case in yesteryears, aided by better crop yields and harvests. Bt cotton is a variety of cotton that has been enhanced with genes from Bacillus thuringienesis or Bt, a beneficial bacteria found naturally in the soil, and that has been used commercially in biochemical insecticides for more than 30 years to fight caterpillar pests.
Bt is particularly effective against the African bollworm, the most destructive pest in cotton farms.
Scientists have incorporated Bt into cotton, so that the crop can protect itself against the African bollworm, through the production of a protein that is harmful to the pest. This leads to higher yields for farmers.
However, with the ban on GMO crops still in place, farmers can’t grow Bt cotton, and they have on several occasions appealed to the government to lift the ban so that they can plant the genetically modified cotton that would revive the industry and improve their fortunes.
The National Biosafety Authority okayed open field trials of the crop, and the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) called for public comments on the field trials in April. If approved, Nema will issue a licence to the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) to proceed with national performance trials at sites in Mwea, Katumani, Kampi ya Mawe, Bura, Perkera, Kibos, Alupe, Kerio Valley and Matuga.
However, even if Bt cotton is eventually approved, reviving the cotton industry will take much more than higher yields to succeed. “GMO crops are known to have a high output, so Bt cotton is the right plan. But remember the factories are operating at very low capacity and cannot handle bulk cotton harvests. A lot of money is needed to revive the ginneries,” says Peter Ndukhu, the manager of Nambale Farmers’ Cooperative Union.
Luanda Farmers’ Cooperative Union Secretary General David Ogea adds that industry players have to come up with good policies to help the industry rise again.
“Bad policies and governance were part of the reason the industry collapsed. This must be addressed even with better crop in form of Bt cotton, otherwise the industry will be bedevilled by the same ills as before,” he said.
While drumming up support for the cultivation of Bt cotton, Kisumu Governor Prof Anyang Nyong’o said that higher cotton yields would help Kenya access more of the US market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) export market.
Currently Kenya’s cotton production averages 572 kilogrammes per hectare, compared to an achievable 2,500 kilogrammes per hectare.
The country has the potential to produce 260,000 cotton bales annually, but currently produces only 28,000 bales, a deficit that can be filled if better technology were adopted.
The potential available land for cotton cultivation is over 400,000 hectares, but only about 29,000 hectares are currently under the crop, and there are about 39,000 cotton farmers in the country while the sector can support more than 200,000 farmers.