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Ugandan farmers strives to revive once thriving cotton production

by Ronald Ssekandi BULIISA, Uganda (Xinhua) -- Prices may rise and fall, but in the eyes of 76-year-old Michael Zade, a Ugandan farmer, the crop has never failed its job as the family’s breadwinner.

Over the last 40 years, Zade has been growing cotton, a practice he got from his father, in the remote mid-western district of Buliisa. For him, the crop paid tuition fees for his five children and funded the construction of a permanent house.

Cotton is Uganda’s third largest export crop after coffee and tea, as well as the main source of income for some 250,000 households like Zade’s.

For many of them, hopes are high that the industry would embrace a boom after the Ugandan government launched a campaign to support cotton and other local industries.

Before the onset of stiff competition from Asia, Uganda’s textile industry had been a flourishing industry way back to the 1960s.

Zade refers to the time as the "good old days" when a good cotton harvest meant merry making for the whole village.

There were structures and systems right from growing to marketing cotton, and extension workers could traverse villages teaching farmers how to plant and harvest cotton.

The price of cotton at the farm-gate was paid by the ginneries or co-operatives in most cases, and the government would provide a subsidy. This system always encouraged farmers as a good price was guaranteed.

At the national level there was the Lint Marketing Board (LMB), which had the monopoly to trade in all the lint and cotton seed. As a result, production reached the highest level, of 470,000 bales of lint, in 1969/70, according to government figures.

During the early 1970s to mid-1980s, however, war and economic turmoil that befell Uganda disrupted the cotton production.

In order to revamp the industry, the government in 1994 liberalized the cotton sector, replacing the LMB with the Cotton Development Organization (CDO), a state agency charged with monitoring the production, processing, and marketing of cotton.

In the process of liberalization, the government had been anticipating that opening up the sector would make it more efficient and boost production.

This however exposed the farmers to the price fluctuation in the global market as over 90 percent of Uganda’s cotton is exported.

Figures from the Bank of Uganda, the country’s central bank, show in recent years, whereas the quantities of cotton have gone up, the value is not stable.

While exported cotton rose to 63,512 tonnes in 2015 from 40,671 tonnes in 2014, the value for exported cotton fell to 20 million U.S. dollars in 2015 from 22 million dollars in 2014.

The government is striving to revamp the sector, arguing the crop can still be one of the country’s top foreign exchange earners and generate much of the revenue internally.

Earlier this year, President Yoweri Museveni called for supporting Uganda’s local industries and directed all uniforms for the army, the police and prisons service be bought locally.

He said the country spends 888 million dollars on annual textile imports, money that would have been used to revamp the industry locally.

Banking on a recent decision by East African Community member states to ban importation of used clothes, Uganda believes it can still reap big from the crop.

The country is already reaping from the available international markets where it can export its textile materials tariff and quota free.

According to CDO, Uganda now has 40 ginneries and a total installed seasonal ginning capacity of around 1 million bales of lint production (200,000 tonnes).

This is above the maximum production achieved in the last two decades.

Despite many opportunities awaiting local farmers, Zade urges the government to help them cope with the harsh climate change effects besides declining soil fertility.

He said the last two seasons have not been good due to prolonged dry spells and infertile soils.

He said farmers need to be provided with good-quality seeds and fertilizers to ensure good yields.



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