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13 - 20 February 2008 
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Africa’s Cotton Besieged Within and Without

The viability problems that plague Africa’s cotton farming sector are indicative of the inter-connectedness of the many issues bedevilling African agriculture in general. Cotton’s problems provide an example of how agronomic, economic, trade and other matters are all part of the mix, and therefore of how difficult it is to find solutions.

Although Cotton is grown as a cash crop in almost all parts of Africa, it is in the Sahel region that it has the most economic importance. This is because unlike in other agro-ecological zones, few other crops of commercial value can thrive in the Sahel’s arid, sandy environment. Some rural areas of the Sahel entirely depend on cotton for cash income.

According to the World Bank, cotton accounts for five to eight per cent of the GDP in West Africa, but it is much higher in the region’s countries that mostly or entirely fall in the Sahel. The International Cotton Advisory Committee (an association of 44 cotton-producing countries) says that up to 15 million West Africans are dependent on cotton farming, especially in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali.   

Cotton farming’s biggest problems are low producer prices and high production costs. Although global prices have firmed by about thirteen per cent in the last year, the trend over the past decade has been declining prices. At the same time, the high input levels required in cotton cultivation keep going up. Agrochemical costs, especially for pest-control, take up as much as 40 per cent of cotton production costs.

The mismatch between rising production costs and stagnant or falling producer costs have put cotton farming in crisis across Africa. In countries where cotton has been just one of the several cash crops, farmers have been able to shift to other crops. In the Sahel where the ‘white gold’ has been the main source of income, the increasing un-viability of growing it has had disastrous consequences. Many of the region’s cotton farmers are on a hopeless treadmill of growing the only cash crop they know, but either just barely breaking even or making losses.

Cotton’s hitherto economic (and therefore also political) importance all over Africa is one reason many governments have struggled with various cotton-sector support schemes, but none have done much to stem cotton farming’s decline. The decisions about how much their cotton fetches on the world market is not in the control of the continent. The amorphous power of “the market” that makes cotton prices sub-economic for many farmers is far stronger than anything they or their governments can do to save or prop up the sector.

A strong downward pressure on cotton prices are the subsidies some of the world’s cotton producers give their farmers. The U.S. is considered the main culprit in this regard, but countries like China also subsidise their cotton farmers, helping to “artificially” drive down global prices. Strong global pressure for U.S. subsidies to be reduced is unlikely to yield any results in the short term. This is because of the importance that these subsidies have come to assume politically, as well as for the very survival of U.S. cotton farmers.

Although the U.S. has tried to deflect some of the strong criticism of its subsidies by supplying aid to West African cotton-producing countries, it is not enough to make much difference to the survival of the sector. The region’s governments and sympathisers routinely speak of how the cotton subsidies of the U.S. are “destroying” West Africa’s cotton sector.

While the negative effect of U.S. subsidies on cotton prices cannot be denied, other reasons why Africa’s cotton production is falling behind in competitiveness are not being addressed. Among these are low productivity due to poor quality seed and reliance on hand-held and rain-fed cultivation.

Even if U.S. subsidies were completely lifted today, it is unlikely that African cotton would be substantially more competitive on the global market. An Oxfam study found that eliminating U.S. cotton subsidies would increase African cotton farmers’ incomes by between two and six percent. This might just be enough of a difference to put some useful additional hard currency in farmers’ pockets or help loss-making ones to just break even. The small percentage difference is an indication that this factor alone would not be enough to make the African cotton sector thrive or be significantly more lucrative than at present.

Addressing productivity and competitiveness may be of just as much importance to the long term viability of Africa’s cotton sector as what the U.S. does in regards to its cotton subsidies. But then again, there might not be any donor funds to be gained from making this point, so those who have appointed themselves the “saviours of Africa” would rather attribute the entire problem to U.S. subsidies. The Africans are made to feel sorry for themselves while their cotton competitors in Asia and Latin America are busy improving their production methods!

The U.S. cotton subsidies are unfair and a huge headache that lobbying against should continue, but Africa has little or no leverage on the U.S. in this regard. Africa can devote attention to improving cotton farming’s productivity and international competitiveness. Among the many things required are short season cotton varieties for shorter and warmer rain seasons. Also needed are improved seeds, greater access to irrigation and new farming methods in general.

Even if the political will and economic resources were allocated to dealing with these issues, many farmers may have no choice but to give up cotton farming. Policy makers can assist in exploring what alternatives are possible and beginning to set in motion the long process of introducing new crops and ways of thinking to many present cotton farmers. Already, in parts of West Africa, the decline of cotton farming in the absence of planned alternatives is driving mass migrations and many other social upheavals.   

The growing of organic cotton has been suggested as an alternative to the high and increasing costs of conventionally grown cotton. Not only do farmers save on the high costs of agro-chemicals, but they enjoy the premium prices that organic cotton fetches. But this is a developing niche market still in its infancy, with many problems to overcome. There are still many questions to be answered about the reliability of organic pest control against the boll weaver, as well as issues of the costs of certification.

Organic methods will neither be easy nor attractive to all farmers.The present premiums caused by under-supply will dwindle as more generally agro-efficient nations than Africa’s get on the organic cotton bandwagon. While organic cotton can provide a reprieve to some farmers who are being driven out of conventional cotton, it is not realistic in the short term to think that it can save Africa’s cotton sector from the many problems it faces.

Countries like Burkina Faso, Kenya, Egypt, South Africa and Uganda are experimenting with genetically modified cotton, touted as reducing herbicide and pesticide costs and improving yields. There are the usual bitter controversies surrounding the pros and cons of GM crops, only slightly reduced in the case of cotton because it is not a food crop. The widespread adoption of organic or GM cotton in Africa is unlikely to save this floundering sector.

The African cotton industry’s problems go deeper than production issues. Unless other problems of African agriculture are also dealt with, African cotton might still remain uncompetitive compared to rivals. Whether the cotton is organic, conventional or GM does not address other competitiveness-sapping deficits such as Africa’s poor transportation and irrigation infrastructure, for example. It is vital for African policy makers to understand and grapple with all the facets of these issues. Even where it is not possible to salvage the cotton sector, alternative types of farming and income generation can then be explored in a planned way.

All this will represent wrenching changes for farmers and many African economies. But those changes are already being forced on them, and it is better to try to manage those changes than let the changes manage Africa  (as has often been the case) to the continent’s detriment. Change is constant, let us plan for it.


By Chido Makunike
Makunike is an Agricultural Consultant based in Dakar, Senegal

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