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Prospects looking up for cotton farmers

Mzee Julius Chelagat from Chegilet location in the Kerio Valley remembers with nostalgia the 80’s and 90’s when he worked as a field officer with Salawa ginneries. Chelagat who has since retired says the economy of the area was booming by then.
He narrated how he used to straddle the entire region when cotton growing was the main cash crop paying farmers their dues which he said used to be done every two weeks after delivery to the ginnery where it used to be taken for ginning, removal of seeds and other impurities before being taken to textile industries.
Chelagat says farmers used to sell their cotton at sh.6 per kilogram which was a lot of money by then. “The ginnery which is still in existence used to supply farmers with pesticides, fertiliser and certified seeds on loan which would be deducted during the payment,” he said.

A cotton farmer explaining the process of cotton farming in Kerio Valley, Baringo County (file photo)

“They used the money earned from cotton to buy livestock, take their children to school and meet all other financial needs,” he said. Chelagat said during that time, the nearby Chegilet trading centre was booming with business.
“However all this went down in the period between 1998-2002 when cotton farming collapsed due to a combination of factors both local and international,” he said.
He said during that time, prices which were being dictated by the world market started fluctuating while conflicts as a result of cattle rustling took centre stage leading to locals seeking refuge in the highlands resulting in the total collapse of cotton farming.
However with the recent approval of commercial farming of BT cotton by the government, things are looking up in the area which has already started reviving the industry following the signing of an MOU between the county and the Moi University owned Rivatex which is set to provide guaranteed market for farmers.
According to the managing director Rivatex Prof. Thomas Kipkurgat, the factory is currently producing 10,000 bales against a capacity of 70,000 bales annually.
Simon Kwambai, a cotton farmer says the area is getting prepared for what lies ahead saying they are in the process of forming a cooperative society which will ensure that farmers reap maximum benefit from the crop.
“With a cooperative society, we will deal directly with the buyers and thus eliminate middlemen who may come up once the production increases,” he said.
They already know the benefits of the new variety of BT cotton saying it will lower the cost of production since it doesn’t require the use of pesticide while increasing production.
One of the major challenges faced by most farmers is the high cost of chemicals used to control stem borer and other pests attacking the crop where they were forced to spray up to 11 times once it has started flowering until harvesting after five months.
Mzee Kwambai says they usually plant during this month of April before harvesting in August. He however says if they had enough water through irrigation, they would be planting more than once in a year saying right now they depend on rain water which is curtailing their potential.
“We are now appealing to both levels of government to embark on the construction of dams to ensure we have enough water for planting throughout the year thus increasing the production instead of relying on the rains,” he said.
He says the delay of the rains last year during planting led to losses saying they ended up getting 16 bags from one acre instead of the recommended 20-25 of 40kgs each.
Another challenge farmers may face is lack of storage facilities which may affect the sector but they hope that through the cooperative to be formed they will prioritize the same.
The announcement by the government to start the distribution of the certified BT cotton seeds couldn’t have come at a better time for farmers in the area with the two old men even willing to provide their farms as demonstration plots for other farmers to learn.
Having been cotton farmers when the crop flourished, they understand too well the economic benefits that can accrue from its production saying with cotton, residents will comfortably take their children to school without seeking bursaries as well as meeting other financial needs.
The Arror ward agricultural officer Isaac Macharia says the sector will go a long way in alleviating the problem of unemployment as it will offer employment to many people in its value chain from the farm all the way to the factory.
He added that with the continued high demand for clothes, the market is huge and especially given that cotton materials are of a better quality which cannot be compared to the polyester.
The revival of the cotton industry will enable farmers contribute to the president’s manufacturing agenda which is part of the big 4 through the textile industry.
By Alice Wanjiru

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