The 2019 conference of the African Cotton Association in Bamako (Mali) revealed a lack of progress in the African cotton sector, reports Jozef De Coster.

There's much frustration in the African cotton sector. The African cotton countries, which are mainly situated in West Africa, fail to build a competitive cotton textiles and garment industry based on local cotton. Exported African cotton doesn't get 'the best price in the world', though local classifiers believe it's the best cotton in the world. Also, the dream of the African cotton industry to Africa has a chance become an important international player, isn't about to be realised. Compared to China, India and the US, the African continent remains a small producer and exporter.

Seventeen years ago, the first annual conference of ACA (African Cotton Association) took place in Bamako, capital of the Sub-Saharan country Mali. It made sense that the ACA returned to Bamako this year (March 14-16), since according to recent figures, Mali has passed Burkina Faso as Africa's biggest cotton producer. In 2017-18 Mali produced 703,652 tonnes of cotton. The cotton farmers obtained on average a price of 250 FCFA/kg (or 0.43 $/kg). Most of the production was exported to Asia, with China (28 per cent), Bangladesh (20 per cent) and India (16 per cent) being the biggest customers.

Just like in some other West African countries, cotton in Mali is a very important pillar of the national economy. More than 4 million of Mali's 18 million inhabitants are dependent on cotton cultivation. The cotton sector has a share of 15 per cent in the gross domestic product (GDP). According to sector observers, Mali could in future grow much more cotton if irrigation investments would be undertaken near the Niger river and if the government would give more support to the sector.

However, the government of Mali is financially weak and foreign investors are not likely to take risks in a country that is characterised by instability and violence. Western embassies advise their citizens not to visit central and north Mali, including the World Heritage Site of Timbuktu. In spite of the presence of more than 13,000 United Nations peace keepers (Minusma) and 4,500 French troops, Tuareg rebels as well as terrorists (Al Quaida, IS) remain violently active in Mali.

The people of Mali like to remind foreigners that their country in the past was the centre of a vast empire. According to historians, never has a person lived on earth who was richer than king Mansa Musa I of Mali (1280-1337 A.D.). It's estimated that the personal assets of Mansa Musa surpassed many times those of the Roman emperor August, who himself was much richer (with around $4,500 billion personal assets in dollar terms) than people like Jeff Bezos (Amazon) or Bill Gates (Microsoft).

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