Climate change to worsen the plight of cotton farmers

Climate change or rather climate variability will continue to decimate cotton production. Different regions will be affected differently with lots of uncertainties leading to difficulties in advising farmers on how to respond to these drastic changes in weather patterns.

Africa, with lower average yields will be further negatively affected by erratic and unreliable rainfall seasons resulting in even lower yields. New pests and pest resistance to pesticides are also expected to increase due to global warming. The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) 77th Plenary Meeting in Abidjan brought researchers and other experts together in December 2018 to have serious conversions around these challenges.


The possible solutions to the climate change threat, as discussed in the plenary meeting revolve around use of short season varieties, increased use of Biotech (BT) cotton and increased investments in meteorological services provision by national governments. Short season varieties mature early and stand a better chance of surviving short rainfall seasons that have become common in the region in recent times.

Biotech (BT) cotton also presents a better alternative to conventional cotton varieties with improved pest resistance and far much higher yields. The pest resistance reduces use of costly pesticides which in turn reduces farmers’ exposure to hazardous pesticides.

However, in the SADC region there is still some resistance from some countries in adopting the use of BT crops. Improved meteorological services will provide real time weather services at local level and therefore improve farmers’ decision making on what activities to carry out and when.

In conclusion, cotton production remains one of the low hanging fruit in fighting rural poverty as it is a cash crop with a long history of being produced in many countries in Africa. Cotton is mainly produced for export markets and therefore a major foreign currency earner.

Cotton production provides employment in rural areas and indeed in the whole value chain and can assist governments to deal with the ever-increasing unemployment in most countries in Africa.


Cotton production projections

In the 2017/18 season, global cotton production rose by 17% to 26.8 million tonnes, following the 7% increase in production of the previous season. The forecast for 2018/19 season predicts a slight dip of 2% to 26.3 million tonnes. This slight decrease in production is attributable to the reduction of area under cotton coupled with no improvement in yields.



This came out of the 77th Plenary Meeting of the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) which recently took place in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire. The global giants in seed cotton production remain the big three, India, China and the United States of America with Brazil and Pakistan fourth and fifth respectively.

The only African country in the top ten cotton producing countries is Burkina Faso, this shows that African cotton production remains very low and a lot of effort needs to be put in the cotton sector to turn this situation around. The anticipated high cotton prices and better expected returns from cotton compared to competing crops would suggest area expansion.

Notwithstanding this, several major producing countries will have reduced area under cotton due to ongoing pest issues, adverse weather conditions, water availability and changes in government policies. Closer to home in the SADC region, the predicted El Nino phenomenon will probably exacerbate adverse weather conditions and many farmers may end up opting to put more area under food crops such as maize.

Global cotton area is currently projected at 33.6 million hectares representing a 1% decrease from the previous season. The global cotton production average sits at 788 kg/ha, 413 kg/ha for Africa and much lower at 252 kg/ha for eastern and southern Africa. These figures for Africa and more so for southern Africa suggest that there is something that the region is not doing right.

Lessons could be drawn from West Africa; whose average production of 426 kg/ha is almost double that of eastern and southern Africa. Increased investments and government support in both primary production and processing are instruments seemingly working to boost cotton production in the west African region.

Cotton Producers Hope to Cash in on Cotton

Following a difficult start to the year, households engaging in agricultural production across the region have struggled to grow sufficient yields in staple as well as cash crops at the same levels seen last season. A hostile climate, the limited reach of extension services and inadequate availability and supply of inputs were some of the key challenges cited by cotton producer associations at the 2016 annual Southern African Cotton Producers Association (SACPA) meeting.

SACPA convened in Maputo, Mozambique from 12th to 14th September 2016 for their annual meeting which was co-hosted by Forum Nacional dos Productores de Algodao (FONPA) along with SACAU, supported by SACAU’s development partner, We Effect. The multi-stakeholder platform has eight members across the region, namely the Cotton Farmers Association of Malawi (COFAM), ODER Sofia of Madagascar, Sembulelo Sakotini Farmers Association of Swaziland, Zimbabwe Cotton Producers Association (ZCPA), Cotton Association of Zambia (CAZ), Cotton SA and the Tanzania Cotton Growers Association (TACOGA).

In addition to receiving country updates from members and learning about the development of the cotton sector in Mozambique, the meeting explored the formulation of pricing models and elements which are applied. In understanding what is working well in member countries, cotton producers could collectively work towards overcoming some of the perennial challenges the cotton sector in southern Africa is experiencing through peer-learning and experience sharing.


Members of SACPA at their annual meeting in Maputo.

Members of SACPA at their annual meeting in Maputo.


The meeting was officially opened by the Mozambique Cotton Institute (IAM), in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security; an institution which oversees the cotton sub-sector in the country. Cotton is a strategic cash crop which is a source of income for about 160,000 farming families’ in Mozambique and while the meeting was held in the capital city, the major cotton producing areas where the crop is primarily grown are in the central and northern region. FONPA President, Mr Jose Domingos, celebrated the work that the Ministry is doing to support his organisation and encouraged better cooperation and communication between the government and themselves.

A field trip was organised to Umbeluzi Agrarian Station, a branch of the Mozambique Agrarian Research Institute and to Beluluane Industrial Park. Delegates were taken through various fields of crops planted using improved varieties, which were selected to breed higher yields of better quality crops in terms of nutrition as well as resistance to pests and adverse climatic conditions. The use of conservation agriculture (CA) by the local farmers at the Institute was also hailed in the context of climate change management, with horticultural fields mulched appropriately. Delegates were especially interested in how horticultural research was being carried out and expressed interest in exploring other types of farming activities in the down time from growing cotton.

A partnership between the government of Mozambique and the private sector partner Chiefton Mozambique has seen this Free Zone being developed, which is set to become the premier location of southern Africa for export-orientated and general industrial and manufacturing businesses, including the textile industry.

The impact of climate variability, persistently high temperatures and delayed rains were common characteristics of the country presentations which were shared. The associations shared tools and actions which they adopted over the past season to build capacities of farmers and increase their impact in their respective environments. Some of these tools and actions entailed business training for women farmers, exposing farmers to handloom technology to promote weaving and participation in crop marketing through cotton cooperatives.

Innovation was underscored as a key factor for a sustainable membership drive, with members demanding more tangible benefits from associations, forcing them to think bigger and more creatively to attract and retain their members. SACPA members left Maputo with a renewed sense of positivity, which will create the drive needed to carry the platform through its planned activities for the next few months.