An integrated cotton textile apparel value chain could benefit the region

An integrated cotton textile apparel value chain could benefit the region

Greater integration and cooperation among African states is needed to boost business and investment in the continent's cotton, textiles and apparel sector, a three-day industry conference in Nairobi, Kenya, has been told.

The Origin Africa event last week brought together clothing and textile industry players and experts who heard that national cotton apparel and fabric sectors within Africa were duplicating products when a collaborative approach could be more effective.

Dr Terry Townsend, a cotton commodities consultant from US-based Cotton Analytics, who moderated the opening seminar of the meeting, told just-style that regional integration was key. "Rather than having separate national industries, each producing essentially the same things in competition with each other, a regionally integrated cotton textile apparel value chain could lead to enhanced value for the entire region," he said.

Matthias Knappe, representing the Switzerland-based International Trade Centre (ITC), added that such a strategy should be devised by a broad-range of industry players, who should be given information to make the right decision. "I think you need to empower the stakeholders in Africa to make their own decisions - farmers, ginners, the government and also textile investors," he said. Knappe hoped the right decision would boost the sometimes-negative international perception of African cotton.

He coordinated discussions on how international expertise could help regional economic bodies - such as the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) - implement a cotton strategy.

Meanwhile, Christoph Kaut, managing director of the Aid by Trade Foundation, stressed how his organisation could be such a source of expertise, which could be funnelled through sustainable development programmes run by African governments.

"There is no competition at the national level between a national sustainability programme of, let's say, Tanzania and that of Zambia, which I think is a major advantage for the smallholder farmers of Africa," he said. The Aid by Trade Foundation trains smallholder cotton farmers to improve value and sustainability, and its 'Cotton Made in Africa' initiative works with more than 700,000 smallholder cotton farmers across 11 countries.

He hoped investment in the textile manufacturing industry of East Africa and, to a lesser extent into West Africa, would increase demand for African produced cotton. "We would like to participate to make Cotton Made in Africa the choice of the textile industry in Africa whether it is east or west," he noted.

But for this to happen, African cotton supplies need to become more reliable, according to Fritz Grobien, a member of the Cotton Advisory Group to the European Commission. Governments must also rectify failures in their cotton sector policies and work to boost low cotton yields.

Grobien, who is also a past president of the Bremen Cotton Exchange in Germany, said: "Government has to put regulations in place; a licensing fee; and clear, strict, contracting rules that protect investing - then you will revive a sector that has in the past actually set good examples."

"We wish that Africa would take a long policy approach. Some of the African countries have done it and they have been rewarded because their cotton sector is growing. So it proves that it can be done, but you need to put it on a different kind of perspective and not on short term interest, but long term," he added.

Dr Margaret Karembu, director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications - Africa region (ISAAA-AfriCenter) told the conference that providing African cotton producers with access to biotechnology could also boost yields.

"If you consider an Indian farmer who sprays [pesticides] only two times for his crop, genetically modified cotton, and compare that with an African farmer - let's say even a Kenyan farmer who sprays eight times - these two farmers are targeting the same international market. The African farmer who has not had access to choose between the technology and other conventional methods continues to be disadvantaged," she said.

Dr Karembu added that by banning or disallowing imports on genetically modified crops, as Kenya did in 2012, African farmers remain uncompetitive, earning only the lowest prices. Genetically modified cotton in Africa is grown in Sudan, Burkina Faso and South Africa, she noted, to the benefit of their farmers.

Eduardo Peterlini, team leader of the EU-Africa Partnership on Cotton, stressed that international programmes promoting cotton production should be utilised by African cotton industries. That includes the services offered by his organisation, regional cotton development programmes developed by COMESA, UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union) and ECCAS (Economic Community of Central African States), and assistance offered by the UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) under its Pan African Cotton Road Map programme.

As for marketing to buyers, Mercedes Gonzalez, director of Global Purchasing Companies, advised African firms and designers to study buyers closely before pitching their ideas. Her US-based company scouts and buys apparel for distribution to Western markets and she told just-style that she hoped to discover new designers at the conference. 

But Veit Geise, VF Corporation's senior vice president of sourcing in Asia and Africa, stressed that for the time being, Africa needed a helping hand through free trade agreements with developed importing countries.

"At the moment, Africa is a relatively immature market, so applying international rules to such a market will not help the market to be competitive. So we need duty-free agreements at the moment to get it started and once the market matures, you can probably do without it. But to get started without duty free agreements would be near or next to impossible," he said.

Geise added that such agreements need to be long-term. VF has been manufacturing uniforms in Kenya for the past two years and is looking to move into Ethiopia, which, he argued has benefited from increasingly free access to western markets.  

Origin Africa was organised by the African Cotton & Textiles Industries Federation (ACTIF) and brought together manufacturers, suppliers, buyers, designers, artisans, industry experts and government officials from more than 25 countries.