Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Giving cotton its fluff back

At the peak of the country’s textile industry in the 1980s, it was a matter of pride and sense of class for any Kenyan to don a cotton product with Rift Valley Textiles (Rivatex) garments or Raymond Woolen Mills’ Kaunda suits a must-wear for all.
Since then, the industry’s fortunes have plummeted to such an extent that the then hugely popular Kaunda suit is presently, at best, a relic.
In fact, it even sounds ridiculous today to imagine that at one time both the rich and poor would become instant village celebrities by simply donning the four-pocketed jacket popularised by founding Zambian President, Kenneth Kaunda.
“It is regrettable that we have left such a highly significant industry to collapse from such a pre-eminent social and economic status in a short period, “ says Dr John Akoten of the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research, a Nairobi based independent think-tank.
The cotton sector’s fall from grace is a product of various challenges facing the textile sector as a whole.
They include poor infrastructure, non-payment or late payment of farmers, poor quality government services and low productivity as a result of an inefficient labour system, poor quality lint and obsolete machinery
Others are lack of a clear vision and effective strategy, frequent policy changes and operational procedures, high production and operational costs and lack of a training system for industry players.
In this regard, while the country has the potential to produce about 140,000 bales of cotton per year, it currently produces well below optimum levels, which saw it produce about 40,000 bales last year.
Although official statistics says the industry supports about 200,000 farmers, industry sources say the figure could have fallen to as low as less than 50,000 farmers.
Dr Romano Kiome, the Agriculture Permanent Secretary, says the industry is critical to the economy.
Although he admits that Asian countries are flooding the global market, the PS disputes that there is no ready market for the local farmers due to the competition from the Asians. He cites Rivatex as a viable option.
“It is the short supply of locally produced cotton that forces Rivatex to process only 9,000 bales per month against its potential of 20,000 bales per month,” he said.
The company, which collapsed in 2000, has since then been revived and acquired by Moi University.
Dr Akoten, who is a research fellow coordinator, real sector, at IPAR, concurs with the PS.
He says the industry is labour-intensive giving it a huge potential to create many employment opportunities, reduce poverty and therefore raise the income of farmers through backward and forward linkages with other sectors.
Noting that the garment export share in national exports has been increasing steadily in the past decade, he says, the conversion of the Export Processing Zones into special economic zones will create more opportunities for the sector to grow.
Powon Micah Pkopus, the managing director of the industry regulator—Cotton Development Authority, says the industry has a long value chain that is capable of spurring the creation of other industries.
“It is a major source of income in the arid and semi-arid (ASAL) areas where there are limited economic opportunities or non-existent at all,” says Mr Powon.
Besides creating a market regulator, he says the government is addressing all the issues bedevilling the sector as outlined late last month by Agriculture minister, William Ruto, aimed at resuscitating the sector.
They include farmers being paid up-front for their cotton supplies, registration of all cotton buyers by the Cotton Development Authority and waiver of the 16 per cent tax levied on locally produced and ginned cotton.
Mr Ruto also proposed that all taxes levied on imported textile including second hand clothes or mitumba be utilised in boosting the production of cotton.
However, analysts say more needs to be done especially in developing and implementing a good policy strategy before the sub-sector can get out of the woods.
“The ministry must obtain buy-in and support from line ministries on various strategies to jump-start and promote the sector,” says Dr Akoten.
Peter Kegode, an agribusiness specialist, is more blunt and says the biggest challenge facing the sector is the lack of political goodwill backed by substance.
“The measures by the minister are part of positive rhetoric coming from the ministry showing good intentions but lacking in action,” says Mr Kegode.Mr Jacob Mwirigi, who is the chairman of the Kenya Cotton Ginners Association, says the minister should try and address specific issues. “It is not easy to address all problems in the sector at once but priority must be given to the issues affecting the farmers to boost local production,” says Mr Mwirigi.
Without a clear system to ensure farmers access quality seeds, farmers are exposed to unscrupulous seed merchants and distributors. Mr Powon says the Authority aims to address all problems affecting the sector including enabling farmers to access seeds.
This will see the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) producing basic seeds for the Kenya Seed Company and other CDA registered seed merchants to produce them commercially. But the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) will certify the seeds.

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