Alice Mwase has a particular passion – cotton farming – which is the only means of securing food for her family.
In her area, Kalambo in Balaka, growing cotton, unlike maize, is the lifeline for many families because cotton is viewed as the most viable cash crop as the climate is appropriate for its production.
But despite its potential for pro-poor growth, the future of the cotton sector faces numerous production and market failure questions.
At the time when cotton is sold at K375/ kg, the highest ever price offered to farmers in Malawi, Mwase still has 400 kg unsold cotton because ginners or buyers have not come forward to buy the commodity.
Ginners argue that the K375/kg minimum price is not economical for their companies.
Apparently, there is only one ginner on the market and Mwase is not amused.
“The minimum price for this year was good. However, many ginners did not like it and, as a result, they did not buy most of our cotton,” says Mwase during an interface meeting organised by the Civil Society Agriculture Network (CisaNet) with funding from Irish Aid recently in Balaka.
She blatantly says the development has frustrated most farmers who are contemplating of switching to other crops next farming season.
Cotton has traditionally been an important cash crop in Balaka and is the fourth largest agricultural export after tobacco, sugar and tea in Malawi. And recognising the potential of the sector to generate both much-needed foreign trade and to reduce poverty, cotton was highlighted as a priority export crop in Malawi’s National Export Strategy.
Unfortunately, cotton has been a troubled agricultural product for the country, and a number of issues continue to impede its value in the market place.
An upset Mwase feels that cotton is slowly becoming a neglected crop whose production levels are rapidly plummeting, consequently affecting the already vulnerable communities that relay on it for survival in the wake of climate change which has led to massive food shortages in Balaka.
According to the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Mvac) July report, 333,943 households or 88 percent of the population in Balaka are food insecure.
Cotton produced in Balaka accounts for about 30 percent of the country’s cotton production but many farmers have abandoned the traditional cash crop and there was a huge reduction of area cultivated in 2015/16 farming season.
James Jika from Ngungwa Village, Traditional Authority Nsamala in the district heaps blame on government for failing to properly regulate the cotton industry in the interest of farmers and the economy, arguing farmers are spending a fortune on chemicals and other inputs to produce the commodity, yet government is not protecting them.
Jika says a new pest, mealy bug, locally known as kodikodi in the district, has devastated the crop forcing farmers to spend more than they had budgeted, yet their cotton is now being rejected on the market on allegations that it is of poor quality.
“Kodikodi is an invasive pest. Pesticides did not appear to be effective in controlling it. Some farmers uprooted the cotton and replaced it with pigeon pea to recover some of their losses but the poor rains also failed us also,” he says.
“It was not easy to produce cotton this year. We spent a lot of money and it is a mockery for the buyers to fail to buy the cotton and let alone reject it in the pretext that it is of poor quality. We spent a lot of money on chemicals to spray the cotton. But look, we still have the cotton in our backyards because there is no buyer. Where is the government which has been encouraging us to produce cotton?” Jika wonders.
At the time when farmers are complaining that their cotton has not been bought though cotton has witnessed its ever highest price, Malawi is only expected to yield about 15,000 metric tonnes, just enough for one ginnery out of more than 10 available in the country.
The reduction in production is fairly attributed to the weather. Just like many parts of the country, Balaka experienced erratic rains due to the effects of El Nino.
Sub-Traditional Authority (STA) Phalula, now in his sunset years, argues the weather played a catalyst forcing farmers to abandon their cotton crops which were affected at the critical growing stage of development when rains failed.
He also claims that the reduction in yield is due to the withdrawal of most farmers from cultivating the crop because of low prices offered to producers during the preceding season.
And today, STA Phalula is worried that the levels of localised cotton production decreases and the no-show for ginners to buy the commodity will likely correlate to levels of decreased incomes for households already in a fix because they did not harvest enough maize.
Questions have been asked as to the whereabouts of the K1.6 billion government injected through the Cotton Up-scaling Initiative in 2012/13 in an attempt to expand cotton production into non-traditional growing areas so as to diversify the economy beyond tobacco production.
Through the fund, the initiative was meant to increase cotton hectarage to about 200,000 which would in return generate over $300 million of foreign exchange.
In 2013/14, over 320,000 Malawians were registered to grow cotton, demonstrating the important role the sector plays in the livelihoods of local farmers. Production increased steadily to over 100,000 tonnes from around 50 000 tonnes.
One of the companies asking the whereabouts of the K1.6 billion is Toleza Agricultural Enterprises, a company that has created a network of 600 smallholder farmer clubs covering some 6,000ha across Malawi whose cotton it has traditionally bought and processed at the Toleza Cotton Ginnery since 2009 but this year has not entered the market to buy cotton.
The company’s Field Team Manager, Gladstone Bisika, also blames other ginners for failing to support farmers fully.
“As ginners, we should acknowledge that we didn’t give out enough support to the farmers although, as Toleza, we spent around K80 million on seed and chemicals for the farmers. And the climate also affected production due to erratic rains leading to poor quality of cotton,” he says.
He explains that Toleza did not buy cotton because the government set minimum price of K375/ kg was not economical for the company.
“We were making a loss on every kg, so we made a business decision not to buy,” he says.
“We are at crossroads. However, we recommend that contract farming is a way to go. Ginners should contract farmers and government should put up policies to protect ginners’ investments.”
CisaNet National Director, Tamani Nkhono- Mvula, believes cotton remains a poverty panacea for rural Malawi but proposes that the whole value chain should be re-examined.
“Let us look at the type of cotton seed varieties. Are they resistant to drought, pests and diseases? Then we have to look at the organisation of the buyers. Are they organised themselves?
“All the concerned parties were supposed to agree on the price before the buying started. We have to look at the level of government intervention when coming up with minimum prices. There has to be proper dialogue so that in the end it does not hurt the farmers that are meant to be protected,” Nkhono-Mvula says.
And for Mwase, government’s sincere intervention on the pricing will uplift the cotton sector and directly contribute to increased income and employment for the rural poor farmer.
Deputy Director of Crop Development in the Ministry of Agriculture, Bartholomew Ngauma, who is also a member of the Cotton Council of Malawi, admitted in the local press that government was in dilemma on the minimum price ultimately affecting the market.
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