BT cotton to go commercial in March

New cotton seeds to spur manufacturing, which is part of the Big Four Agenda

In Summary

• Kenya produces an average of 25,000 bales against a demand of 200,000 bales of lint.

• Seeds will be made available to farmers in 27 cotton growing counties.

Agricultural researcher Charles Waturu with a visitor on a BT cotton trial farm at the Kalro centre in Mwea East
Agricultural researcher Charles Waturu with a visitor on a BT cotton trial farm at the Kalro centre in Mwea East

The commercialisation of BT cotton will increase production capacity and bring the country closer to realising its manufacturing goal, a key pillar of the Big Four Agenda.

According to agricultural researchers, cotton seeds will be made available to farmers in 27 cotton-growing counties, marking the end of an 18 year wait period. The commercialisation is slated for March next year.

Adoption of the genetically modified variety, which is resistant to the destructive African bollworm, is also expected to lower the cost of production by 40 per cent.

Currently, a farmer is required to spray the crop about six times per season, while on average, it costs Sh1,500 per acre per session, which translates into Sh9,000, to fight bollworms, red mites and other pests.

"Pest control on the available varieties takes 32 per cent of all production costs. Persistent use of synthetic pesticides is expensive and destroys benefits and induces pesticide resistance,” said principal BT cotton researcher and centre director Charles Waturu from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Karlo) centre in Thika, Kiambu county.

The country currently produces an average of 25,000 bales against a demand of 200,000 bales of lint, with a deficit covered through imports from Uganda, Tanzania and the Far East to support the export processing zone (EPZ).

According to the Fibre Crop Directorate, the country has about 50,000 cotton farmers who are only able to produce 30,000 bales against an annual demand of 368,000 bales.

The farmers only use 10.04 per cent of 384,500 hectares suitable for cotton farming, producing 572 kilogrammes per hectare.

Recently, President Uhuru Kenyatta commissioned Rivatex Company, which was revamped to the tune of about Sh5 billion to promote the production of textile using locally available sourced cotton.

“Current cotton production cannot sustain the modernised Rivatex and other mills in Kenya,” Waturu said.

Meanwhile, only four ginneries are in operation countrywide. They are Makueni, Kitui, Meru and Salawa. There are 22 established factories.

Meru ginnery general manager David Kihoro says they have installed spinning capacity of 20,000 tons per day but due to low volumes of the crop, the factory only processes 1000 tons per year.

“Key challenge to our ginning process is lack of raw materials,” he said.

The total installed annual ginning capacity is 140,000 bales.

Waturu said cotton production has been hurt by high energy costs, low competitiveness, lack of subsidies, poor technology, competition from cheap imports, inadequate quality seeds, poor management of pests and diseases, inefficient marketing channels and rain-fed farming.

The state is keen to have BT cotton commercialised because of its ability to support the manufacturing arm of the Big Four agenda after years of a steady decline.

Waturu said production of BT cotton can increase income in the textile industry from the current Sh3.5 billion to Sh2 trillion by 2022. "The country can create 500,000 cotton jobs and 100,000 new jobs in cloth making." 

The industry collapsed between the late 1980s and 90s after the liberalisation of the agriculture sector following the introduction of SAPs by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, leading to the closure of most ginneries in operation.

Tana River, Meru, Makueni and Kitui counties used to produce more than half of the national production.

(Edited by F'Orieny)

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