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Challenges facing revival of troubled cotton sector

In the second instalment of the four-part series, Business Writer NICHOLAS WAITATHU looks at the state of cotton ginneries in Kenya

Located in Kitui town is a ginnery that processes cotton from farmers in the county and its environs. Started in 1935 by the Indian family of Zavery, Kitui ginnery is the only major industry in the county. Despite the numerous challenges faced by local cotton industry, Sajaudin Yusufah a manager with the ginnery say the factory has never closed its doors even for a single day.

This, explained is due to regular maintenance of the machinery by the company. Kitui is a semi-arid region and only cotton performs well here compared to other food crops, meaning that the ginnery plays a major role in generating income for farmers who have defied the harsh environment to cultivate the crop for the many years.

The ginnery is the only one in the country processing cotton using old machinery acquired 83 years ago from the 1840 Ruston & Hornsby (Ruston) Company of England. “We have managed to use the machines all through owing to regular maintenance.

We produce fine cotton which we sell to spinners and use the seeds to develop other products like vegetable oil, carbon oil and cotton cake,” said Yusufah at the ginnery head offices in Kitui town.

Cotton production started dwindling in 1990s after the liberalisation of the agriculture sector, a move that had been instigated by the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAPs) by World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

As other ginneries closed down due to lack of raw materials, Kitui dared the environment and to date is one of the four surviving ginneries, though operating at low capacity. The government through the then Cotton Board of Kenya had established major processing factories in various regions.

Some of them which have since stalled are Kibos, Ndere in Siaya County, Homa Bay, Kendu Bay, Samia, Nambale, Malaba-Malakisi, Malindi, Hola and Mpeketoni. Other ginneries had also been established by farmers through co-operative societies and private investors like Kitui Ginnery. Most ginneries collapsed as farmers abandoned the crop due to low prices and gross mismanagement.

According to Ministry of Agriculture, the country at one point had 22 ginneries but as at the end of last year, only four were operating, although at far below the installed capacity.

For example, Peter King’oo the manager of Makueni Ginnery says his facility has an installed capacity of processing six million kilos of cotton but currently due to low supply only manages between 10 and 25 per cent equivalent to 1.3 million to 1.5 million kilogrammes. “Production has been low for many years as farmers almost abandoned farming cotton.

Our highest was only 1984 when we processed four million kilos. But we are hopeful the current interventions by value chain players will help in reducing supply gap,” he said at the ginnery in Makueni.

Fibre Crops Directorate interim head Anthony Muriithi said out of 22 ginneries, only four are currently operational, that is, Makueni, Kitui, Meru and Salawa in Rift Valley.

However, they are operating at about 15 per cent of their installed capacity. He said the national government is talking with county governments in cotton-growing regions, development partners, research institutes and other value chain players to revive the stalled facilities.

He said estimates by the directorate shows that it will cost not less than Sh50 million to rehabilitate one ginnery and fit it with modern systems. Muriithi said the talks involve revival of Mpeketoni, Malindi and Nyanza ginneries in the medium term.

The revival of the facilities will be undertaken alongside promotion of production, he added. Meru Ginnery general manager David Kihoro, said the facility has an installed capacity of 20 million kgs but it is only able to utilise about 15 per cent.

“Even after installing new processing machinery five years ago, we have not received enough supplies from farmers. However, we are fast-tracking plans to revive co-operative societies as part of boosting production,” he said.

In other regions, for example, Nyanza Ginnery in Kisumu County, investors are reaching out to farmers under contract model as part of increasing raw materials. The ginnery was bustling with activity as trucks off-loaded cotton from Bondo, Kendu Bay, and as far as Baringo until 2013. Currently, the owners are trying to revive the facility. Shafiq Zavery, the owner of the ginnery, says three years ago things started going downhill until they were eventually forced to close.

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