Mark Hillsdon reports from the West African country, where a programme by Olam International has vastly increased yields for smallholder farmers

The long, three-month cotton harvest in the fields of northern Côte d’Ivoire is drawing to a close, with hopes high among the pickers that they could eclipse last year’s bumper crop, which saw production rise by over 25%.

It’s a far cry from a decade ago, when the country’s cotton industry was on its knees following a divisive civil war. Farmers had gone unpaid for several years, machinery was dilapidated and the fields, with their outdated seed varieties, were producing poor, low-quality cotton.

Now production is soaring, with the government having stepped in to introduce a fixed price for cotton, as well as a zoning system, with different cotton companies concentrating their operations on a limited number of areas. These include the Société d’Exploitation Cotonnière Olam (SECO), a subsidiary of leading global agribusiness Olam International, which has introduced a range of new ideas and commitments, such as faster payments and higher-quality cotton seeds, that are helping to bring a new stability to village life, and significant new benefits to the business.

It's always quite astonishing that people think cotton plants need to be irrigated in order to grow, which is not true

SECO is one of the country’s largest cotton buyers, accounting for around 25% of all its cotton. It supports a system called integrated ginning, and alongside processing the cotton, also provides farm extension services such as agro-inputs and support to help farmers increase yields. Last year, for instance, the company provided over 3,650 tonnes of free seed.

Olam recognised that improving the productivity and traceability of Côte d’Ivoire’s cotton market would stimulate cotton farming. After carrying out an analysis of the sector that touched on everything from finance to technical skills and local healthcare, the company introduced a network of extension workers, who, as well as being trained in cotton farming and issues such as credit management, were also familiar with local communities.

It is a policy that has seen yields nearly double on the farms that sell to SECO, rising from a post-war nadir to an average of 1,163 kilogrammes per hectare (kg/ha), while the 17,500 farmers SECO works with take home up to $2,175, up from a low of just $530 in 2008.

Hand-picking cotton is a more sustainable alternative to machine-harvested farms. Credit: Lauren Hillsdon

Africa produces around 18% of the world’s cotton, the vast majority of it picked by hand. This is a more sustainable alternative to the vast machine-harvested farms of Australia and the US, where chemical defoliants are often used prior to harvest and the ginning, or processing, of the cotton takes far longer and is more energy-intensive, as  impurities such as stalks and seed heads, which are largely absent from hand-picked cotton, need to be removed.  These fields also require extensive irrigation, something which has recently seen the industry pounded in the media.

“It's always quite astonishing… [that] people think that cotton plants need to be irrigated in order to grow at all, which is not true,” says Tina Stridde, managing director of Cotton Made in Africa (CMIA), an organisation supporting many of the continent’s 3.4 million smallholder cotton farmers.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, she says: “Farmers have never irrigated their fields.”

Côte d’Ivoire has a climate uniquely suited to cotton, with farmers working to a strict planting regime that makes use of the rainy season, when the cotton plants most need water.

Our partnership with farmers must be a win-win affair. The more money they make, the stronger their desire to keep growing cotton will be

CMIA is working with cotton companies such as SECO to help farmers learn about soil management and increase their resilience to climate change, teaching ideas such as mulching, and making the most efficient use of available rainwater. It’s a way of working that dovetails with Olam’s Re-imagining Global Agriculture commitment, which is helping to re-generate ecosystems and help smallholders to co-exist with nature.

A new GPS service, Spyder, is also supporting farmers, explains Josia Coulibaly, SECO corporate responsibility and sustainability officer, by helping them to target inputs such as fertiliser with greater accuracy and efficiency. This saves them money as well as increasing yields, she says, and means they can set pockets of land aside to grow other crops.

Faster payments – made in seven days rather than a month – have also been introduced, she continues, one of several ideas that she’s pleased to see are being replicated by cotton buyers working in other zones.

US cotton grown on a huge scale is far more energy and water intensive. (Credit: Badger13/Shutterstock)

We recently started a programme in partnership with the World Bank to train co-operatives on better financial management. This is our first year, and other cotton companies have already started calling me because they are interested in doing the same thing,” she explains. “Despite the distance that separates us post-zoning, they are always aware of our innovations.”

SECO also makes bonus payments to village co-operatives that exceed targets, and helps them to increase their access to market. There is also a commitment to providing new water pumps, schools with trained teachers, and local health services, while a 24-hour advice line for farmers is run in partnership with CMIA.

“Our partnership with farmers must be a win-win affair,”says Coulibaly. “The more money our cotton growers make, the stronger their desire to keep growing cotton will be. If not, they will switch to another crop.”

The programme has enabled overlooked farming communities in Côte d’Ivoire to transform their livelihoods

Stibbe agrees that these sorts of initiatives are making cotton-farming attractive again. “For the farmers there is a clear bond between those projects and the cotton,” she says. “When you see there is a health station that has been built, or your school has been renovated and your children do not have to walk 12km... it is a very tangible, positive effect that comes through the work.”

The programme has also been a successful one for Olam, too. Alongside a boost in the number of farmers working with the company – another 1,500 joined SECO last year alone – and the dramatic increase in yields, the work in Côte d’Ivoire has also focused on applying best-practice processing efficiencies. A specific programme in 2015 led to savings of $460,000 and since then SECO has been focusing on developing detailed metrics on various cost factors, as it edges towards its 2020 goal of 1,500 kg/ha by 2020.

Olam’s CEO Sunny Verghese describes it as “an inclusive business model that has enabled overlooked farming communities in Côte d’Ivoire to transform their livelihoods, while simultaneously growing Olam’s volumes, bottom line and customer base.”

Main photograph by Lauren Hillsdon


sustainable cotton  Olam International  Côte d’Ivoire 

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