Cotton farmers in Kenya have been urged to prepare for the approved genetically modified cotton hybrid seeds – Biotech cotton (BT cotton) – starting next year.
According to Trade and Industry Cabinet Secretary Betty Maina, BT cotton produces more yields and is resistant to many diseases.
In December last year, the government approved the commercial farming of BT cotton hybrids following the successful completion of field trials conducted over a period of five years.
The commercial farming of BT cotton is expected to ensure farmers earn more from the crop through increased production. It will also boost the manufacturing pillar of the Big 4 Agenda where Kenya seeks to establish itself as a regional leader in textile and apparel production.
Kenya has approximately 50,000 cotton farmers who are only able to produce 30,000 bales against a yearly demand of 368,000 bales. Adoption of BT cotton, which is resistant to the destructive African bollworm, is expected to boost productivity from the current estimate of 572 kg/ha to 2,500 kg/ha, and lower the cost of production by 40%. In 2018, biotech cotton was planted in 15 countries led by India, USA, China, Pakistan, and Brazil.
Cotton farmers therefore expect to be provided with certified seeds in a fresh bid by the government to increase production of the crop and boost the textile industry.
National cotton production reached a peak of 38,000 metric tonnes of seed cotton in 1984/1985 and from then on production declined to 14,000MT by 1995 following liberalization of the sector and withdrawal of government from the provision of credit and inputs.
According to an industry analysis by Better Cotton, in the 1970’s Kenya was a major East African producer of seed cotton for both local consumption and export. The sector’s potential in Kenya remains high; however poor production methodologies, due to the lack of appropriate technical skills in agronomic practices and deficient marketing systems for cotton and other crops, result in a failure to meet smallholders’ expectations of cotton quality and pricing.
While cotton is one of the few cash crops able to grow in low-rainfall areas, thanks to the crop’s relative tolerance for heat and drought, reduced rainfall during flowering and boll formation can significantly reduce yields.
Currently, the majority of Kenya’s agriculture, which includes cotton production is rain-fed. Therefore any changes in local precipitation patterns can have large impact on yields. Climate change is expected to lower precipitation levels and increase unpredictability throughout Kenya’s arid regions. So investing in climate-adaptive technologies like irrigation infrastructure and local water harvesting as well as better seedlings can help to offset yield declines.
Kenya’s ministry of agriculture estimates that cotton can potentially be grown in 24 counties in arid and semi-arid areas. The industry has the potential to employ 1.5 million people under the cotton textile and clothing value chain. Income earnings to growers will contribute to poverty reduction, especially in arid and semi-arid lands (ASALS). Cotton offers the raw material for local textile and apparels industries to manufacture for export and contribute to foreign exchange earnings.
According to an analysis by Feed the Future, an American Global hunger and food security initiative, farmers plant with poor quality seeds and have to contend with high pest pressures, resulting in low-quality cottonseed output. This in turn adversely affects the volume and quality of lint outputs produced by ginners, who are also impeded by old and inefficient ginning equipment.
“The average cotton lint yield achieved by Kenyan ginneries is only 33% compared to a potential of 40% for the cotton varieties grown. Kenya also has a relatively low value addition rate per worker in the garments sector, which will require further investments in capital, equipment, and training to improve,” the analysis reads in part.
Farmers are still grappling with high input costs and poor quality seed, weather, and low farm gate prices that prevent re-investment as key contributors to low yields.
Therefore the Introduction of BT cotton is viewed as a silver lining for the industry to help it thrive amid the challenges.
“Additionally, farmers lack access to finance for high-quality inputs and other investments for farm improvements. Pesticides account for almost a third of farmers’ input costs, yet the majority of cotton farmers fail to spray even half of the recommended number of times per season. Thus, most farmers are unable to meet the market demands for both yield and quality, perpetuating low incomes and preventing investments in higher quality inputs. In addition, limited public capacity for extension services excludes farmers from climate-smart agriculture practices that could offset costs, improve yields and build resilience,” the analysis reads.
So far, there are over 74,000 apparel companies in Kenya with 170 medium and large firms and 22 foreign firms, while the remaining are small and micro-operations generally subcontracted to the larger operations. The main market for these companies is the US with 70% of Kenya’s apparel companies selling over 80% of their products to the US.
Kenya’s textile exports enjoy quota and duty free access to the US market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGO) in addition to other preferential treatment in EU and COMESA markets. There are also numerous opportunities in targeted manufacturing to supply apparels in the local market and for home textiles and home décor.
Kenya’s cotton industry
The ministry of agriculture places Kenya’s textile and apparel sector as one of those with the potential to play a key role in anchoring the country’s deeper movement into middle income status.
The sector is also expected to contribute in serving as a source of gainful employment for its fast growing, young population. As a manufactured good, it offers opportunities for increased value capture and streamlined trade logistics and for the building of skills and experience from the factory floor to management level. Based on these foundations, it therefore serves as a potential gateway to other manufactured goods, offering opportunities for Kenya to capture an increasing share of global trade and to advance economic diversification.
Potential for cotton exports from Kenya
According to an exports database from United Nations COMTRADE Kenya’s exports of cotton was US$1.36 million during 2018.
During the launch of BT Cotton program on March 9th this year, the Kenyan government had promised to provide farmers with certified hybrid seed for planting during the long rains of March/April.
The government has since procured 16 metric tons of non-BT hybrid cotton seeds for distribution to cotton producing regions in the country.
Another analysis by TrendEconomy shows that the value of exports of woven fabrics of cotton from Kenya totaled $480,000 in 2018. However sales of woven fabrics of cotton from Kenya decreased by 40% in value terms compared to 2017.
Fashion industry in Kenya
In a world of fast fashion with ever-evolving fashion designs, the cotton sector has the potential to play a key role in the apparels industry. Kenya also prides itself with a deep well-spring of talent among fashion designers and small tailors, who can serve both the global, domestic, and regional markets. However the country’s sophisticated market for fashionwear is less inclined towards ethnic and traditional wear unlike other African countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Rwanda. Reviving a Kenyan wear will play a key role in the revival of the industry. Kenya has a long and rich history in the Fibre to Fashion (F2F) industry dating back as far as the early 1900s.
The sector grew steadily with accelerated downstream developments, including ginning, spinning, weaving, knitting, dyeing and finishing, and garment making facilities both for the local and export markets. The Government has over time played a catalytic role through direct investments in establishing large-scale integrated textile mills and through policy (mostly protectionism) which were followed by investments from the private sector.