THE production of cotton, commonly referred to as Zimbabwe’s white gold, is in serious decline at a time when the country is desperate to revive the textile and clothing industry, which is in a sorry state.
Grown by an estimated 200 000 small-scale farmers, earlier forecasts had put the crop at 250 000 tonnes this 2013 season, down from 283 000 tonnes in the last season.
But preliminary indications are that output plunged by 49 percent this year to 145 000 tonnes, way off the projected target.
There are others who believe output could have plunged to as low as 134 000 tonnes.
This has serious ramifications for the industry in the sense that cotton merchants would have based their budgets on higher figures and scaling the numbers down would require them to streamline operations.
Experts in the industry could not rule out retrenchments as established players scale down their operations.
The industry employs an estimated 8 000 people.
Over the years, ginners have lost confidence in the sector due to rampant side-marketing whereby those who would have funded the crop lose out to unscrupulous buyers who entice contracted cotton farmers with better prices.
As a result, there has been a significant reduction in cotton funding, hence the downward spiral in output.
Funding for farmers has declined from about US$44 million to about US$22 million while yield per hectare declined from 0,8kg to 0,5 kg per hectare in the small-scale farming areas.
Merchants are also complaining about the unavailability of cheap funding caused by the interest rate spike, triggered by the cash squeeze rattling local markets. In the previous season, farmers produced 283 000 tonnes from 422 000 hectares, earning the country over US$200 million.
Zimbabwe achieved an all time peak of 353 000 tonnes in 2000.
Despite the perennial price disputes between farmers and merchants, cotton remains the country’s second largest foreign currency earner in the agricultural sector after tobacco.
The labour intensive crop is, however, under threat as buyers are failing to provide a sustainable price to farmers because they cannot influence prices on the international market.
Side marketers take advantage of their low cost bases arising from the fact that they do not fund farmers to produce the crop and that their operations are informal to offer prices that are slightly higher than what is offered by the other players.
With smallholder farmers producing 99 percent of the crop and 95 percent of the crop being grown under contract, the country has the potential to produce at least 600 000 tonnes of cotton at an average yield of between 1 500kg to 2 000 kg per hectare. Cotton Ginners Association (CGA) director general, Godfrey Buka, confirmed that Zimbabwe was likely to produce around 145 000 metric tonnes of seed cotton this season.
“The target this season was 250 000 metric tonnes but this went down due to poor yields. This was a direct result of inclement weather and, to a lesser extent, the migration of some of the farmers to other cash crops owing to low cotton prices. The drought stricken crop had a low plant population with lighter cotton bolls which resulted in poor yields,” Buka said.
The low output is not peculiar to Zimbabwe alone but has been the trend in other cotton producing countries in southern Africa.
“The situation in Zimbabwe was the same as that prevailing in the rest of the eastern and southern African region where cotton crop production declined significantly this season,” said Buka.
“According to CGA sources in the cotton industry, neighbouring Zambia experienced a drop from 275 000 to 86 000 metric tonnes; Malawi went down from 100 000 metric tonnes to 41 300 metric tonnes while in Mozambique the crop also took a downward spiral from 184 000 to about 100 000 metric tonnes. Further to the north of us in both Tanzania and Uganda, the cotton crop also declined by 25 percent and 40 percent respectively,” Buka added.
Despite the reduced yield, the cotton marketing season was yet again marred by side marketing.
Farmers accused ginners of not fully funding the crop while the ginners accused the farmers of disregarding their contractual obligations.
Both parties flouted the 2009 SI1142 cotton legislation designed to ensure long term viability of the cottons sector by regulating the entire chain from production to marketing.
The legislation was expected to bring order, fairness and consistency in volumes and quality of the crop, but farmers and ginners failed to abide by their contractual obligations.
“A lot of factors contributed to the reduction in production but for a crop that relies on support from contractors, ginners failed to fully finance the crop, only financing 21 percent of the crop because they were a bit skeptical about the 2012/2013 season,” Zimbabwe National Farmers Union vice-president Garikai Msika said.
“The inputs packs provided by ginners were not adequate and already they were not fulfilling their contractual agreements wherein they were supposed to fully finance the crop hence farmers received other inputs from the Presidential Scheme and personal sources resulting in what ginners term rampant side-marketing by farmers,” he said.
To restore sanity in the sector in the next season, ginners and farmers are working on a new contracting model to be finalised soon.
Growth in smallholder cotton production during the 1990s was driven by the development of the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe credit scheme and by active promotion of the crop in small scale growing areas of Gokwe, Sanyati, Guruve, Muzarabani, Mt Darwin and Checheche.
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