Africa as a major producer of cotton does not always figure in discussions. African countries taken together constitute almost a quarter of the cotton exports of Bangladesh, and also supply substantial quantities to China. Given this backdrop, it was surprising that few from outside attended the recent annual conference of the African Cotton Association, reports Jozef De Coster from Nairobi.

If only Africa's top politicians would take into account the diagnosis and recommendations that representatives of African Cotton Association (ACA) present at their annual conference. Time and again, these representatives explain why there's such a big gap between the disappointing current situation and the rich potential of the African cotton sector in terms of job creation and foreign currency earnings. If the governments and companies concerned would follow the advice of the African cotton experts, India would have a hard time competing with Africa in the international markets, just as well in terms of raw cotton as cotton garments.

It was surprising that, with the exception of the Bangladesh Cotton Association, no other Asian association or companies were represented at the recent 15th annual conference of ACA in Nairobi (Kenya). Would they think that a pan-African cotton conference is not worth a journey? After an increase in cotton production from 1970 to 2005, a financial and economic crisis hit the African cotton sectors leading to a sharp decrease in production. Even if this production has improved recently, Africa's share in world cotton production is hardly 5 per cent. However, since nearly this whole production is exported, Africa is a significant player in the world market. Organisations like ICAC (US), Bremen Cotton Exchange (Germany), Afcot (France), ITMF (Switzerland) and interested companies like Cargill, Glencore, Louis Dreyfus, Marsk Line, were all present to get the latest information on developments in African cotton countries and to network with African and European cotton experts.

According to French cotton consultant Gerald Estur, India is the principal competitor of Africa in the world's important cotton markets. Mike Edward of Cotton Outlook provided some statistics to prove that Estur is right. In 2016, cotton imports in Bangladesh, the country that nowadays tops Vietnam and China as the world's biggest cotton importer, originated for 24 per cent from India and for 26 per cent from Africa. Last year, only 9 per cent of China's cotton imports originated from Africa, but other years it was more than 20 per cent.

Low production efficiency and untapped potential

It may be a surprise to some that African cotton exporters can compete with India. The yield per hectare is on average low in Africa and African cotton fibre is said to be mostly of mediocre quality.

According to Baba Berthe from Mali, chairman of ACA, the two main weaknesses of African cotton culture are indeed its low production efficiency and the quality of the cotton itself. Several other challenges have also to be responded to like high production cost, insufficient research, guaranteeing an attractive minimum price for the farmers, cotton export subventions in US, EU and China, and the difficulties in building up local (or regional) cotton textile supply chains from fibre to fashion.