Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Helping cotton growers to their feet
Edgar R. Batte
Joan Asio, a local from Pallisa district has the skill to grow cotton but she cites the problem of prices. "I am too poor to buy the expensive inputs like spraying pumps, insecticides, fungicides let alone the much needed money for cultivating land, planting, sorting and marketing," Asio explains.
She says that if the government addresses the issues of high costs of inputs and increases prices of cotton, then she could ably grow cotton. Asio's call is not in isolation. Many cotton farmers actually share the same experience and their biggest problem remains that of the low cotton prices that have consequently kept them within the vicious poverty circles. That is where they expect the government to intervene.
Some candidates in the presidential campaigns have come out to tackle the cotton issue. Speaking on Mega FM in Gulu district weeks back, presidential hopeful Dr. Abed Bwanika accused the NRM government of failing to exploit the agricultural potential of Uganda. He said he would encourage mass and quality production, establish silos, restore co-operative unions and introduce credit lines for farmers.
He also promised to reintroduce massive cotton growing in Northern Uganda to help fight poverty as well as try to improve on security in the area. He said this while on his campaign mission in Kitgum and Pader districts.
According to statistics provided by the Cotton Development Organisation (CDO), cotton can be grown by literally two thirds of Uganda which would mean that if favourable policies are put in place and the marketing is good, Uganda's 50 percent subsistence farming community can depend on cotton as a cash crop and this would go a long way in eradicating poverty.
REWARDING: A man sorts cotton at a ginnery in Busitema, Tororo (above) while farmers harvest cotton at a farm in Busitema (blow). With favourable policies, the cotton industry can thrive as it did in the past. Photos by Wandera w'Ouma

Meanwhile, as the commodity prices continue to affect the local cotton farmers in Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the global trade negotiation rounds of the just concluded World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial meeting in Hong Kong seem to have long-term promises for the third world countries. The WTO member nations have debated for years the best way to promote free and fair trade, something the World Bank says could add $300b to the global economy.
At the five-day talks held between December 13-18, the Minister Of Trade, Tourism and Industry Daudi Migereko, while presenting a paper on Uganda's call to the global talks, highlighted the importance of the cotton sector in many African countries and thereby said it should be addressed as such. "However, it is our belief that as we address the cotton issue, the problems faced by other agricultural commodities on which most of our economies depend should also be addressed.

It is our hope that a positive decision regarding commodity issues will also be taken during this ministerial conference," Migereko pointed out. During the negotiations, the African ministers called upon the world powers, more so the European Union to consider creating a levelled trade ground through cutting down on subsidies given to its local farmers.
This would be best geared towards crafting more meaningful trade and opening way for countries like Uganda in accessing the lucrative markets of the north. Thanks to the solidarity geared towards removal of subsidies forthwith, in order to provide an opening for free and fair trade, the US offered to cut its cotton subsidies starting this year.
But notably, the viability of the US' offer could be a little doubtable given its past rigidity in trying to realise the 'African Dream' of cutting subsidies as the case has recurrently been tabled at a similar forum in Seattle and Cancun.
In fact rather than being an important milestone towards the achievement of the much-touted development round, Hong Kong has ended as a platform for anti-development outcomes. For instance, much of the ministerial draft consists of promises rather than concrete resolutions as a result of manipulating weaker states to concede most of the positions they hitherto went with to Hong Kong.
ChallengesThe clearest loss is in the area of services, where their right to choose which service sectors to open and to what extent, according to their own national needs, was undermined.
Cotton when put into perspective, for instance as regards the end date of 2013 for the elimination of export subsidies, loses in significance when compared to the damages to African farmers caused due to the domestic support measures in the rich countries. This all reveals just how mortifying the global trade negotiations are towards the African cause. In Uganda during the late 1970s, the cotton industry started losing out at the time when the prices started declining. The inputs got scarce as agricultural liberalisation begun to take its toll on small farmers.
Today, the government through the Cotton Development Authority is urging farmers to come out and help revive the cotton industry. According to a report released by Actionaid, the farmers have been left solely at the mercy of the private sector in the acquisition of input and in the marketing of the cotton.
On top of that, Uganda still has a challenge of addressing supply side constraints as well as adding value to cotton. Migereko pointed out that there must be an integral part of a comprehensive approach in, "addressing the development aspects of cotton."
According to data from the Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Industry, cotton was the second most important traditional cash crop in Uganda, contributing 25 percent of the total agricultural exports during the 1950s. By the late 1970s, this figure had dropped to 3 percent, and government officials were pessimistic about reviving this industry in the near future.
Farmers had turned to other crops in part because of the labour-intensive nature of cotton cultivation, inadequate crop-finance programmes, and a generally poor marketing system. The industry began to recover in the 1980s. The government rehabilitated ginneries and increased producer prices.
In 1985, 199,000 hectares were planted in cotton, and production had risen from 4,000 tonnes to 16,300 tonnes in five years. Cotton exports earned the country $13.4m in 1985. Earnings fell to $5m in 1986, representing about 4,400 tonnes of cotton.
Production continued to decline after that, as violence plagued the major cotton-producing areas of the north, but showed some improvement in 1989. Cotton provided the raw materials for several local industries, such as textile mills, oil and soap factories, and animal feed factories.
And in the late 1980s, it provided another means of diversifying the economy. The government accordingly initiated an emergency cotton production programme, which provided extension services, tractors, and other inputs for cotton farmers.
At the same time, the government raised cotton prices from Shs32 to Shs80 for a kilogramme of grade A cotton and from Shs18 to Shs42 for Grade B cotton in 1989. However, prospects for the cotton industry in the 1990s were still uncertain.
New hopeIn fully reviving the cotton industry, Migereko added that LDCs are in for interventions that would yield sustainable outcomes citing the crop as one of Uganda's leading cash crops and a source of livelihood for the local farmers too.
Adding to the African cause during the Hong Kong talks, United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Anan called upon world trade authorities to place the needs and interests of developing countries at the heart of the ministerial negotiations.
In the latest development, African cotton farmers could as well be hopeful. This comes after the launch of a new website, cottonAfrica.com that will enable them to share experiences and boost cotton trade in Africa. Organisations that work with some of these cotton farmers could share information with local farmers and localise some of the concepts from the site. According to the BBC, the electronic trade link will allow cotton traders and manufacturers from the Eastern and Southern African region to do business on the Internet.
Buyers and sellers of cotton and textile products in Africa will be able to access information on cotton prices, international grade standards, policy updates and a directory of all major players in the cotton industry in the continent as well as be linked to other cotton and textiles related websites.
The website is hosted by the Regional Agriculture Trade Expansion Support (Rates), a programme funded by the United States Agency for International development to increase agricultural trade within the East and Southern Africa region and the rest of the world. 70 percent of raw cotton produced in countries such as Egypt, Malawi, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Tanzania is exported out of the region.
Cotton experts hope capitalising on regional markets will help strengthen prices for the commodities as campaigners continue to lobby the WTO to remove cotton subsidies for European and Asian farmers.

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