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Cotton under threat

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The cotton industry in Malawi could be under threat following a shift on the world market from cotton fibres to synthetic fibres as raw material in the clothing and textile industry.

For years, natural fibres have dominated the textile industry, with cotton being the undisputed material used for making garments and home furnishing.

A report released by the African Institute of Corporate Citizenship (AICC) analysing the synthetic fibre boom and the future of the cotton industry, shows that cotton consumption has been floating between 10-30 million tonnes against synthetic fibres which have exponentially risen from 15 million tonnes in the 1960’s to about 90 million tonnes in 2016.

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Sythetic fibres are now seen as the fastest growing textile fibre against cotton and silk with the report showing that fibre production rose from seven tonnes in 1980 to 40 tonnes in 2012 and continues to rise.

Manufactures consider synthetic fibres more attractive to cotton because they are relatively cheaper to produce than cotton and exhibit a high level of design and freedom in research.

The shift has also been driven by changes in lifestyle in emerging countries like China and India.

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AICC said the synthetic fibre boom in the textile industry has detrimental impacts on the cotton subsector and countries that rely on cotton export trading for their overall Gross Domestic Product.

It further predicts that cotton fibres will continue to face stiff competition on the world market.

The transition comes at a time when the cost of production of natural fibres such as cotton is high and the crop is facing competition from other food crops such as cereals and legumes.

Although Malawi is not a major cotton producer regionally, accounting for less than three percent of the average of total African production, cotton still comes fourth as major foreign exchange earner for the country.

While the synthetic fibre boom has not greatly impacted on Malawi yet due to its low export volumes, AICC says the findings should be a wakeup call to all cotton producing countries such as Malawi to start strategizing to revamp their cotton industries.

“The cotton market in Malawi just like many other sub-Saharan African countries continues to be influenced by a lot of externalities, including the shift of textile fibre. Growth in world cotton demand remains a key concern as global stocks and competition from lower priced manmade fibres such as polyester weigh on the world market,” the report said.

Minister of Economic Planning and Development, Goodall Gondwe while indicating that government is aware of the trends on the world stage, said mitigating strategies must first be put in a budget context.

He, however, said government is on course with its plans to diversify the economy.

“We are doing quite well shifting from tobacco to legumes and people are responding well. We just have to make sure that export earnings are brought back into the country,” he said.

Government through the Cotton Council of Malawi has earmarked production of 80,000 tonnes of cotton in the 2016/2017 season.

But cotton production levels have been dwindling hitting less than 15,000 metric tonnes in 2015/2016 growing season and the persistent decline in cotton production makes the share of Malawian cotton almost negligible.

Currently, the major limitation to increase yields and production is limited access to production inputs by smallholder farmers.

The Economics Association of Malawi (Ecama) said it is too early for Malawi to abandon cotton as a cash crop, observing that the country should instead focus on producing good quality cotton, engage in value addition and find other markets.

Ecama Spokesperson, Edward chilima, said Malawi being an agro-based economy, continuos diversification measures would help to reinforce economic gains.

“We need to empower small and medium enterprises to produce crops with export quality,” he said.

China has emerged as the largest consumer of textile fibre and is the largest producer of synthetic fibre in the world.

The amount of fibre produced by China grew by 60 percent between 2008 and 2012 and now totals 36.1 million tonnes.

This represents a world market share of 65 percent. On the other hand, India is the largest producer of cotton fibre but its share on the global textile market increased by 17.5 percent in 2013 compared to 2012.

The growing demand for synthetic fibre on the world market has detrimental effects on India’s export earnings and African countries that export their cotton to India.

This shift has strained the exports of Francophone and sub-Saharan African countries which rely on India as their major export market.

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