The use of SMS technology in the cotton industry is still in its infancy

The use of SMS technology in the cotton industry is still in its infancy

A key fibre in the global textile and apparel industry, cotton production is under threat from factors such as climate change, competition from new crops, and the migration of workers to more lucrative jobs. But a new social network has found that implementing SMS technology at the farmer level helps improve farming practices as well as engaging young people in agriculture – as Amy Barthorpe, head of business development at WeFarm, explains.

What are you wearing today? Whatever brand it is, whatever colour, or size, there is a 50/50 chance that it is made from cotton. 

Cotton has been used for thousands of years (with cotton garments found as early as 6,000 BC) and is one of the most durable, versatile materials, used to create everything from clothing to bed sheets. Cotton fibre is used in more than half of the world's textiles and is therefore a very important raw material in the global economy. 

Cotton is grown largely in sub-tropical climates, where cotton production is increasingly affected by water scarcity, soil degradation, and climate change. Finding a sustainable way to produce this raw material has thus become a high priority for the industry. 

Peru is a good example of how cotton is threatened by climatic changes. The temperatures in coastal regions of Peru have increased significantly in recent years and even a rise of a couple of degrees in temperature can damage cotton. This year, Peru also expects to be impacted by the strongest El Niño in recorded history and the heavy rains might drown cotton plants. 

Another challenge is that many cotton farmers in developing countries are now diversifying into new crops. Rice is a crop which grows well in similar climates to cotton and can give farmers higher returns.

And urban migration also poses a threat to the cotton industry, with many young people migrating to big cities in order to find more lucrative work. 

If these trends in migration and diversification continue, the question arises: how will cotton still be grown in these regions?

It's clear that in order to secure the future of cotton, there needs to be a concerted effort to drive sustainability at every level of the supply chain. Much action has been taken to reduce water usage and increase energy efficiency, but implementing sustainability at the farmer level still remains a challenge, partly because cotton farmers live in isolated parts of the world which makes getting information to them difficult.

However, the ubiquity of mobile technology has created a huge opportunity for the cotton industry. Some 90% of people in developing countries now have access to a mobile phone, which means that farmers can learn about farming through their mobile phones, without needing to leave their farms. 

SMS in particular is helping cotton farmers improve their farming practices. In the Piura region in Peru, farmers have been learning about sustainable farming methods through WeFarm, a social network that launched in February 2015 to connect farmers with their peers via SMS. For a few months now, the cotton farmers have been sharing ideas and best practices on cotton farming as well as learning how to protect cotton from climate change and how to deal with many other challenges they face. 

Initially developed as a communications platform for farmers to share grassroots innovations and sustainable farming practices, WeFarm allows farmers to get tailored information specific to their situation straight to their mobile phone; a cotton farmer can find out how to protect their crop against erratic climate, or learn how to make their own organic fertiliser. All information is farmer-generated so farmers on the network submit answers to questions from other farmers. 

The interactions generated on the service can be analysed for trends and highlight potential issues in the supply chain. For example, the top themes within this group of farmers in Peru were: pests and infestations, cotton fungus, climate and weather, and access to finance. Monitoring farmers' daily interactions makes it possible to provide early warnings to businesses and reduce the impact of pests and diseases on crop yields and quality.

Swazi Cotton is another project that took advantage of the quick and easy-to-implement nature of SMS. Swazi Cotton, created by Technoserve and funded by USAID under the Swaziland Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development Program (SWEEP), enabled farmers to receive advice via SMS. Farmers could find out up-to-date information such as rainfall or pest outbreaks.

Not only does SMS technology provide an opportunity to disseminate information, it also helps to engage young people in agriculture. New tools and platforms can make farming cotton a more lucrative profession with fewer hardships, thus making it a more attractive option for young people who might otherwise migrate to the cities in search of work.

Many other agricultural industries have already taken advantage of SMS as an effective way of sharing information with farmers, helping them to improve their livelihoods and creating a strong foundation for a sustainable supply chain, but with cotton, this trend is still in its infancy. The opportunities for SMS to drive sustainability gives reason to be hopeful, and we should all continue sowing the seeds for sustainable cotton. 

About the author: Amy Barthorpe is head of business development at WeFarm. She is responsible for developing WeFarm's strategic commercial partnerships, as well as identifying and leveraging alternative growth opportunities. She helps a wide range of corporate businesses to improve their supply chain sustainability, and works closely with NGOs and governments, helping them to empower smallholder farmers with vital information.