The quest to return cotton farming to profitability in Kenya has received a vital jolt with the recent reopening of textile factories in the country.
Recently, President Uhuru Kenyatta presided over the official reopening of Rivatex with a strong pitch for cotton growing.
Besides the Eldoret-based processor, Thika Cotton Mills, Bedi Investments and Ken Knit factories have reopened.
This is the fruition of deliberate government interventions targeting the revival and growth of local industries. For instance, halving the price of electricity for textile firms, the government will cut production costs.
An immediate and long-term effect of the reopening is a surge in demand for local cotton.
Cotton was an important cash crop in at least 22 of the current 47 counties, supporting thousands of families in arid and semi-arid lands (Asal). However, the painful reforms forced on Sub-Saharan Africa by the Bretton Woods institutions under the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in the 1990s dealt a mortal blow to the sector.
SAPs compelled African countries to free their markets to international competition, leading to a flood of cheaper imports, including second-hand clothes (“mitumba”), at the expense of local apparel.
Textile factories struggled to find buyers for their products, which retailed at prices higher than mitumba. As a consequence, they failed to pay farmers reasonably and on time.
The mist, however, seems to be clearing. A ready market for cotton should be the perfect reward to incentivise production and commitment to the crop.
At an annual maximum production capacity of 20,000 bales, Kenya lags behind its East African neighbours — Tanzania (700,000 bales) and Uganda (200,000 bales) — in cotton production, according to the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA). Acreage under production shrank from at least 32,240 hectares of land under cotton farming in 2011 to more than halve to 13,432ha last year.
The potential lies in abundance. The AFA projects an annual capacity of 420,000 bales that could go higher with modern farming technologies.
As the President noted, Rivatex alone has the ability to consume 100,000 bales of lint, whose annual local demand is around 140,000 bales.
A bigger market exists in exports for processed cotton and finished products, especially under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), where Kenya’s supply is far below optimum levels. A pointer to local export potential is evident in the scramble for the textile industrial sheds in Athi River.
With the Made-in-Kenya campaign, the demand for local cotton can only grow bigger.
To encourage cotton farming, the government is exploring the possibility of guaranteeing a market of all locally grown crop subject to the produce meeting specified standards. It is also in talks with 24 cotton-growing county governments to provide seed and other agricultural extension services to farmers.
Rivatex is expected to directly employ more than 3000 people with the overall potential for jobs projected to rise to 10,000.
Direct and indirect benefits include vegetable oil and animal feeds with the value chain benefiting over 150,000 people. Cotton farming could also mitigate such conflicts such as cattle rustling in Asal regions.
This benefits ecosystem resonates with the ‘Big Four Agenda’, among which is manufacturing.
Mr Waita is the State House Chief of Staff and Head of Presidential Delivery Unit (PDU).