Cotton woes — Producers, ginners chart way forward

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COTTON farmers and ginners recently held an indaba where they sought to address challenges facing their industry and come up with solutions and a way forward since the new season is only a few months away.

Report by Peter Gambara


The indaba, held in Harare on August 23, was attended by representatives from Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union, Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union and Zimbabwe National Farmers’ Union, Cotton Ginners Association (CGA) and Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA). There were also officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and other government departments.

 
With all the accusations and counter-accusations that characterised the cotton impasse recently, parties to the indaba were surprisingly in agreement over the main issues that needed to be addressed as well as the way forward. The parties agreed not to dwell so much on the producer prices that had been announced by Agriculture minister Joseph Made as the marketing of the current crop was almost over.

 
Cotton farmers felt there was need for separate financing arrangements from the contract arrangements provided by ginners, preferably from banks, more like what used to prevail during the Agricultural Finance Corporation years in the 1980s.

 
The ginners/merchants were in agreement and they did emphasise they would also prefer such an arrangement as they would not have to be burdened by following up on defaulting farmers.

 
However, in the interim, both parties agreed banks are not likely to fund farmers, bearing in mind there are over 300 000 farmers scattered all over the country, as well as the risk posed by the inconsistent government policy and prevailing world producer prices. It was therefore agreed the solution lies in levelling the playing field on contract arrangements.
Farmers complained contracts they signed were lopsided towards ginners and demanded a say in their drafting. They also protested that only group chairpersons were made to sign contract forms on behalf of their members.
In the end, the parties agreed that starting this summer season, each farmer would sign his/her individual contract form and that union, government extension officers and the ginners’ representatives would explain to farmers what the contracts entail.
There was general consensus that inputs were being provided to farmers late, thereby affecting final cotton yield. Farmers also complained the basic input package of one bag basal fertiliser and one bag top dressing was inadequate and wanted a revisit of that package. They also felt the inputs were too expensive.
Farmers also wanted to know why cotton seed was not available on the open market, like is the case with seed maize. This was said to be forcing all farmers to go for contract farming as they could not secure seed outside contract farming arrangements.
Cotton seed is distributed by Quton Seeds. Once free seed is made available, the responsible licencing authority should register cotton buyers who will buy the “free cotton/non-contracted crop”.
Ginners were in total agreement with these suggestions and also mooted the idea of pooling their resources together this season so they would issue inputs as CGA, rather than as individual companies. This would give them an opportunity to negotiate cheaper prices with fertiliser and chemical manufacturing companies.
The indaba parties also agreed the current cotton yields being achieved by local farmers were on the low side. After getting basic input package, a farmer is expected to harvest about 700kg per hectare. Other cotton producing countries are using genetically modified cotton which yields much higher than the traditional varieties that we are using locally. Such technology was once developed in Zimbabwe, but surprisingly it was exported to other countries.
There was also consensus that not enough funding was going into cotton research and the parties agreed that part of the licencing fees that were paid by ginners to AMA should be channelled towards that function.
A similar arrangement exists in the tobacco sector, where Tobacco Industry Marketing Board channels its collected tobacco levies to Tobacco Research Board for research purposes.
The indaba agreed there were farmers diverting cotton inputs to maize production thereby resulting in low yields. The parties agreed to copy the arrangements from the tobacco sector, where contractors now provide maize inputs in addition to providing contributions for the contracted crop like maize, an important staple food. No farmer would happily produce a contracted crop without producing maize for consumption.
The parties further agreed it was necessary to invest in extension services that would help new farmers to acquire the relevant agronomic knowledge that would help improve their yields.
The ginners were tasked with providing additional resources to extension agents on the ground, while government will be called upon to provide additional resources to government extension officers.
Farmers cited climate change as another big challenge faced this season as the rainy season was inconsistent and in some cases the rains received were inadequate for the crop to mature and provide reasonable yields.
The parties agreed that demonstration plots be set up in cotton growing areas with funding from ginners to encourage conservation farming. Where possible, the parties encouraged local authorities and government to set up irrigation schemes.
All indaba parties agreed there was need for producers and ginners to agree on a pre-planting pricing model, so that farmers would know before growing the crop, what prices they were likely to get at harvest time.
Cotton growers, ginners and government officials also decided the issue of farmer viability needs a concerted effort from all parties. They further resolved to appoint farmer union representatives who would team up with ginners to approach government to seek a clear futures policy on cotton pricing control.
Other issues that came up for discussion include the need for corporate social responsibility by cotton ginners as their transporters had damaged roads in cotton growing areas.
Farmers expressed concern that ginners preferred to fund rugby tournaments and shunned investing in cotton growing areas. It was also noted there was need to come up with private partner programmes to support youths who wanted to venture into cotton production.
The parties to the indaba agreed to meet on a regular basis to review progress on agreed issues as well as seek solutions to future problems.
l Gambara is an agricultural economist and consultant with AgriExpert. He writes in his personal capacity.  His e-mail address is: pgambara@hotmail.com

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