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Cotton expert Karim Hussein

Karim Hussein of the OECD, and formerly IFAD
Karim Hussein of the OECD, and formerly IFAD

Fibre for livelihoods

Karim Hussein is an expert on cotton in West and Central Africa. He shares his thoughts on the International Year of Natural Fibres and throws some light on the issues affecting cotton production that will be familiar to natural fibre producers around the world.

After many years working with cotton production in West and Central Africa, I have seen how vital the production of natural fibres to smallscale farmers is. The International Year of Natural Fibres must highlight the importance of fibre crops like cotton in the livelihoods of these producers, and the role they have had in increasing producers' incomes and access to inputs and services. What is more, fibre production can be critical not only at the local level but also in terms of countries' national economies: at least five countries in West and Central Africa receive between 20-50 per cent of their export revenues from cotton alone.

Historically, many countries in West and Central Africa have produced cotton. It is usually grown by smallholders using moderate levels of inputs and cheap family labour. It is mainly hand-picked and of high quality, with longer fibres than machine-picked cotton. In sub-Saharan Africa, these farmers often have just five to ten ha and produce a small but significant amount of cotton for cash. Many grow food and fibre crops together, depending on the fibre crops to generate the cash, which is used for purchasing food, and other essentials. Often the inputs and services acquired through cotton production enable these farmers to improve and intensify food crop production, as demonstrated by sorghum and millet in West and Central Africa.

While a few governments have put substantial resources into supporting their cotton sub-sectors, others disengaged themselves from support to agriculture, including the cotton sub-sector, from the early 1990s. The push for privatisation of national cotton companies and agricultural services has also had an impact: while it has sometimes improved efficiency, in other cases it has led to falling investment and a breakdown in the cotton production support system. This has had negative impacts on cotton and food crop production, and consequently on farmer incomes. Yet, evidence shows that with the right support, farmers can grow more fibre and more food in a mutually beneficial relationship. But without effective access to inputs and innovations, both fibre and food production can suffer.

Falling prices

There was a trend of falling prices for West and Central African cotton on international markets for several years until 2004. This was partly due to the arrival on the market of cheaper, synthetic fibres attractive to the textile industry, which sought a cheap, homogenous fibre. But there are good reasons why natural fibres like cotton continue to be important. For example, cotton as a cloth has many positive features in terms of feel, design, look and overall quality. Synthetics cannot meet all those requirements.

The impact of agricultural support and export subsidies paid to cotton and other natural fibre producers in developed countries is another important factor. It has been widely recognised that payments to OECD farmers and subsidised inputs to produce cotton for export have fostered excessive production, which has been a principal cause of the drop in world prices. This has been very damaging to developing countries and the World Trade Organization (WTO)'s Doha 'Development' Round of trade negotiations has tried to address this. Once agreement has been reached it will hopefully feed through to better market prices for poor producers. Although a final agreement still looks some way off, finalising this agreement is an international priority.

Reap what you sew

Despite its high quality, cotton production in West and Central Africa still struggles with the problem of debris and particles in the exported fibre, making it less attractive to modern textile factories. As well as improving the quality, homogeneity and purity of the cotton, we should foster organic production, which is in demand in the European Union in particular, and maximise the niche markets for Fair trade cotton and textiles.

Another way to strengthen the cotton sub-sector might be to foster textile industries in Africa, rather than just exporting the fibre/lint. Imports of finished cotton products from Asia have become popular and, given their lower price and standard quality, have displaced the traditional cotton textile industry. To show what is possible, Nigeria and Ghana have built successful and profitable cotton textile industries to meet the high demand from their own people.

Finally, if the International Year of Natural Fibres can highlight the role of poor smallholders in producing valuable natural fibre products used by consumers worldwide, such as cotton, it would be a very positive result. I hope this will encourage more investment in fibre production support systems that poor smallholder producers require, as well as in regional textile industries and markets.

Karim Hussein is Technical Adviser for the Africa Partnership Forum Support Unit/OECD, having spent several years as regional economist at the International Fund for International Development (IFAD) and three years as head of the agriculture unit at the OECD Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC). He can be contacted at karim.HUSSEIN@oecd.org

Date published: March 2009


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