Despite reports of stability, the country’s cotton industry is performing way below its true potential, says Cotton SA chief executive Hennie Bruwer. However, role players remain optimistic about the increasing number of black farmers in the industry.
In a no-holds-barred conversation about the state of the cotton industry during the recent World Cotton Day celebrations, Bruwer said infrastructure challenges continued to curb farmers. As it stands, dilapidated roads in rural areas are costing the industry more than R200 000 per year.
This, he said, is especially concerning because vehicle accidents and repair costs have a severe impact on especially medium- and small-scale farmers and their returns on investment.
“The condition of roads and infrastructure impact the transport costs to farmers to get their produce to the local markets or export harbours. Cotton’s contribution to the gross domestic product [may be] less than 1%, but the industry has the potential to surpass that level if the challenges facing the industry can be overcome.”
Meanwhile, access to the latest technology and plant genetics remain crucial, added Bruwer. This is another stumbling block facing the cotton industry and ensuring access to it remained high on the commodity group’s agenda.
“[This is because] cotton is a high value labour intensive crop,” he explained. “And from a job-creation perspective, a single tonne of fibre produced on average provides year-round employment for five people, often in some of the most impoverished regions.”
Speaking at the World Cotton Day celebrations, FAO director-general Qu Dongyu remarked that innovation was essential to grow cotton sustainably, a crop that is key to global development.
At a global event hosted by the FAO last week, Dongyu underscored the need to transform the sector to be more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable.
An estimated 100 million family farmers across 80 countries directly depend on the cotton industry, and women play a key role in the value chain. It supports the economies of many low-income and emerging countries. World production of cotton is valued at about $50 billion, while global trade stands at $20 billion.
In recent years, however, the sector has faced numerous challenges. Climate change, pests and diseases, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the unfolding global economic slowdown have hampered the cotton industry. Market price volatility has hit the sector hard. It also has to compete with synthetic fibres.
“We need to do things differently, through innovative approaches to enhance the contribution of cotton to human well-being,” said Dongyu.
Despite the many challenges, Mzansi’s cotton industry had enough other reasons to celebrate, said cotton farmer Margaret Mabulane. More and more black farmers are choosing cotton production – a positive indication about increased transformation in the sector.
“There are more farmers who are interested in cotton production, and they are getting more involved in it. However, if we can overcome challenges that we face such as access to markets, access to technology and middlemen, then we can safely say the industry has absorbed many farmers,” Mabulane stated.
Cotton is currently produced in six provinces, including Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape and the Free State. While Limpopo remained the largest producer, areas in North West have shown significant growth.
As one of only a handful of black women cotton producers, Mabulane said she hoped to see an industry where other up-and-coming black cotton farmers were united. She believes this will make it easier to approach textile companies for bulk buying purposes.
“We have a lot of farmers who are planting on dry land and if that is the case, we are facing a situation where we are not producing enough yields and [not] making enough cash flow.
“If we can have a better irrigation system and accessibly to water, I think that might be better coming from [a] production [point of view],” she explained.
Cotton is currently being produced in six provinces. Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape and the Free State. While Limpopo remains the largest producer, areas in the North West have started showing a lot of potential to be an equal competitor.
Mabulane is one of few black women cotton producers and says she hopes to see an industry where emerging black cotton farmers are united. She believes this will make it easier to approach textile companies for bulk buying.
“We have a lot of farmers who are planting on dry land and if that is the case, we are facing a situation where we are not producing enough yields and [not] making enough cashflow.
“If we can have a better irrigation system and accessibly to water, I think that might be better coming from [a] production [point of view],” she explains.
Mabulane also indicated that many cotton farmers struggled with the cost of mechanisation. Weighing bags and other inputs are expensive, she lamented.
“[Also,] there is a need for new markets because the current market [system] that we are using is not that much profitable for us. There are so many costs that come with the type of market we using. [For example,] you take your cotton and you sell it for R11.50 per kilogram. Then there’s a ginning fee. Cleaning [the] cotton [also costs money] and packaging.”
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