From Egyptian cotton bed sheets (said to be the most luxurious in the world) to the towels you use after a shower; or the undergarments, blue jeans, shirts and socks that you might wear – all originate from a small white boll, or seedpod, that is cultivated around the world. This makes cotton one of the world’s most important commodities, and the most valuable non-food agricultural crop.
Africa is an important producer and the continent has a significant role further along the value chain as a manufacturer of apparel. Africa grows just under 10% of the world’s total cotton harvest, but unlike any other region it is the smallholder farmer, rather than large-scale plantations, that grow this crop.
Cottonseed is also used to extract edible oil that is used, especially in West Africa, in both animal feed and products like margarine. Out of the 12 leading African cotton-producing countries, eight are in West Africa.
The rest of Africa’s cotton growing takes place among four zones along a north–south strip stretching from the Nile Valley to South Africa. The most important zone is that of the Nile Valley. Egypt has long been a leading African producer.
The Origin Africa conference in Mauritius, organised under the aegis of the African Cotton and Textile Industries Federation (ACTIF), took place over two days in September and drew delegates from across the continent and further afield; from Asia, the Americas, the US and Europe.
The first day’s presentations were taken up with the issues concerning cotton production and the various international crop certification options. One of the principal organisations offering global cotton production standards is the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Its representative, Romain Deveze, described how the BCI is bringing an integrated approach to tackling the vulnerabilities of the complex supply chain to ensure the industry’s sustainability.
The BCI works with about one million farmers, or 8.8% of the global total who grow the crop, to reduce the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilisers and water while increasing farmers yields and the take-up of organic fertilisers.
Read more: Africa’s cotton industry looks to the future