West Africa cottons on to the raw material opportunity

While in Ghana, I had the pleasure of working alongside development and raw material consultant, Mark Bennett, before he tragically passed away. I didn’t know Mark for very long, however, after working alongside him for just shy of two weeks, I realized how important his work in Sub-Saharan Africa was. After cutting his first evening in Accra short to “get some rest before solving poverty in the morning”, Mark’s expertise in development and arrival in Ghana teased an auspicious future for the textile industry. Before travelling to West Africa, I had an unexplored interest in raw material sourcing and suddenly found myself being coached on this subject by one of the most highly regarded experts in the industry. Armed with his compelling nature, Mark was making tangible progress in developmental interventions such as vertical integration in agricultural supply chains.


Our clothes were born in the soil. Cotton is grown in tropical and subtropical locations and needs roughly 200 days of sunshine to flourish and bear fruit. After six months, the crop is picked, ginned (to remove the fibre from the seed), cleaned and then spun into thread. Once woven into the material, it is light, breathable and easy to wear, making it the most popular fabric in the world.


The notorious cotton sector shows off the best and the worst of human nature. On one hand, there is the undeniably clever use of the renewable natural resource to provide textile material and the re-purposing of cottonseed oil to create food, animal feed and fertilizer. On the other, the production of cotton sees serious abuses such as trade inequalities, slave and child labour and environmental degradation, due to intensive farming, overuse of pesticides and high-water demand.


West Africa is the sixth-largest cotton-growing region in the world, with the potential to supply organic, quality cotton in abundance. This cotton is almost exclusively grown by smallholders, with few large plantations. However, the sector’s growth has been stunted by structural problems like weak infrastructure and investment. This could be down to local management and previous production methods. The more specific problems include erratic rainfall (with frequent periods of drought, excess rain and flooding), poor seed quality and water pollution.


Cotton is a thirsty crop and according to the World Wildlife Foundation, it can take up to 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton. Alongside its need for warmth, it does well in the dry or humid savannas of Africa. The climate, with its high temperatures and alternation between dry and wet seasons, quenches the thirst of this natural fiber crop.
The West African wet season lasts between May to September although due to climate change, the weather seasons have become increasingly unpredictable. Without basic irrigation infrastructure, cotton farmers are at the mercy of mother nature and without an adequate, reliable water supply, crops suffer low yields and decreased quality – all adding up to a grueling blow to farmers’ livelihoods. In recent years, development agencies and NGOs have worked in partnership with farmers to provide access to training in better soil and water management practices, implementing inexpensive irrigation infrastructures and seed breeding development.


Luckily for West Africa, advancements are being made to feed the appetite for a vertically integrated raw material supply chain.


Vertical integration is a strategy whereby a company takes full responsibility to control its entire value and supply chain. Although significant amounts of capital investment are required, the benefits allow the companies to control every stage of the process, improve efficiencies and reduce costs. In the context of West Africa’s textile industry, vertical integration would allow the protection of raw materials from start to finish, ensure product quality and will improve efficiencies in the transfer of products in the value chain. By controlling the raw material supply chain, it would ensure economic growth in African regions.


On January 30th 2020, the International Cotton and Textile Fair opened for the second time, a biennial event promoting the processing of cotton and textiles from Burkina Faso. The event was a platform for exchange and reflection, attracting professionals from all-cotton chains to work around the concerns and development opportunities in the raw material sector. At this event, Burkina Faso’s President, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, inaugurated the region’s very first ginning plant for organic cotton. Based in Koudougou, the plant is designed to process 125 tonnes of cotton per day and it will be operated by the Organic Cotton Ginning Company (SECOBIO), a joint venture which is 51% funded by the National Union of Cotton Producers of Burkina.


The plant will facilitate the creation of sustainable jobs – employing 40 permanent workers, 100 daily workers and more than 200 seasonal staff. The Minister of commerce, industry and handicrafts, Harouna Kabore expressed that the facility – part of the National Plan for Economic and Social Development, will be spearheading the fight against unemployment among women and young people. He added “the cotton fibre will be produced under rigorous conditions and by international certification standards. It will allow organic cotton from Burkina Faso to be more competitive on the international market for sustainable cotton.”


This is a major innovation and the first of its kind in the region, proving that there is a tangible opportunity for West Africa to become competitive organic cotton producers in the future.

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