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Cotton farming for the future

It was a hot morning, yet it was mid-winter. It wasn’t even 9am. My colleague Luyanda Njanjala and I were headed to meet a farmer in a field. Our destination was about an hour from our base of Komatipoort, a quiet Mpumalanga pre-border town. Luyanda was behind the wheel, so he got to choose the radio station. His choice: calming classical. I relaxed into listening and looking out to the landscape.

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© WWF South Africa Sue Northam-Ras
The town of Komatipoort is close to the Lebombo border crossing into Mozambique and it is also on the Crocodile River which forms the south-east border of the Kruger National Park.

This is (currently) sugar country

In this north-eastern corner of South Africa, close to the border crossing into Mozambique, the warm winds hover over this ecologically important Komati landscape. And as you drive these tarred roads, you can’t miss the large-scale irrigation systems blasting water over one-foot sugarcane fields.

Coming from a chilly Cape Town autumn, the combination of the tangible heat with the steady sound of the massive sprinklers lulled me into a summertime feeling and the assumption that this must be a water-abundant region. But I know better. South Africa is a water-scarce country, and this region has recently experienced drought. 

With more rain in this Komati part of the Mpumalanga Lowveld than South Africa’s average rainfall, enduring crops – such as sugarcane and cotton – do well in this climate. This is land of many responsible possibilities.

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© WWF South Africa Sue Northam-Ras
Large volumes of water and mass irrigation systems are used to grow sugarcane.

Thirsty business

While sugarcane is an important cash crop for this area it is not indigenous, and this exotic crop consumes far more water than this region can support.

We drove past an abundance of high, open-top, double-trailer trucks carrying the burnt brown leaves of freshly harvested sugarcane. Occasionally we’d gone past the odd plantation of banana trees too. But mostly, field-upon-field of water-intensive sugarcane.

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© WWF South Africa Sue Northam-Ras
In the Mpumalanga Lowveld, sugarcane is widely grown and spans as far as the eye can see.

Roaming goats and piano notes

We also passed small sub-tropical fruit stalls on the side of the road, goats walking where they wished and uniformed kids making their way to school. The heat was different to Cape Town. Hotter. Drier. Even for my Joburg colleague, the sun was strong.

As we got close to our in-field destination, we turned off the tar road onto a narrow sandy one flanked by six-foot walls of sugarcane. With the car windows open to welcome any form of a breeze, the semi-dry cane leaves rustling next to me was far louder than I imagined. Set against the audible heat and the ethereal piano notes, the moment felt exquisitely enhanced.

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© WWF South Africa Sue Northam-Ras
Sugarcane is a tropical crop which grows well in warm regions.

The cotton amongst the cane

We arrived at our designated field around 10am. The car temperature was a startling 30 degrees. I had to scrunch my eyes against the glare of the sun in a bold sapphire-blue sky. I saw sugarcane far into the distance on the one side and then, as my eyes made sense of what I was looking for: a low field of pure cotton in its raw, on-the-plant form.

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© WWF South Africa Sue Northam-Ras
The 5-hectare pilot cotton field next to the more common site of tall sugarcane.

Sprouting a cotton dream

I was told the story about when this cotton project idea started to germinate. It made me reflect on how we are so often in the right place at the right time, we just usually don’t realise it right then.

In 2019, WWF was involved in an ISEAL multistakeholder project meeting on sustainable finance in this drought-hit Mpumalanga landscape. While there, it came to light that smallholder canegrowers were exploring options beyond sugarcane and needed assistance to trial cotton growing as an option. My colleague Mkhululi Silandela heard it firsthand and started to see cotton as a seed of potential in partnership with Cotton SA, one of the ISEAL project partners.

Before working with WWF, I knew that Mkhululi had worked in global retail organic cotton supply chains and later with Fairtrade international products and processes.

Based on the global Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), piloting a smallholder cotton project in a sugarcane field would not only enhance these smallholder’s livelihoods while improving the soil, but it could ultimately create a South African market too: locally grown, sustainable cotton available to local retailers!

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© WWF South Africa Sue Northam-Ras
Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) has multiple uses from denim jeans to bank notes.

Only sustainable cotton will do

Serendipitously, a longstanding WWF transformational partner was local retailer Woolworths. They had recently committed to source locally grown sustainable cotton for their clothing business. Together WWF and Woolworths agreed that this pilot project would be the ideal start to help emerging smallholder producers to farm responsibly and benefit from access to market. This is indeed a pioneering project in the world of cotton!

By late 2020, project contracts were signed, a cane-growing smallholder selected, and WWF brought in Cotton SA as an expert mentor. Both Cotton SA and Woolworths are aligned to the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) which endorses less chemicals, and both sustainable and ethical production.

The emerging farmer is 34-year-old Mfundo Msimango from Mangweni in the Nkomazi District of Mpumalanga. He grew up in rural Mpumalanga too and is a strong entrepreneur with an appetite for risk. He had recently bought a 9-hectare sugarcane field which wasn’t giving good yields, yet was guzzling a lot of water.

Canegrower Mfundo had heard that cotton likes sandy soil and is a good rotator crop. He was keen to take the chance and be the first smallholder farmer in the WWF cotton pilot project. Using the field that wasn’t giving good sugar yields, he put forward the required five hectares for the project site and put the time and effort in to prepare the field. First, they ploughed the land and cleared many rocks and stones. They used a tractor again. Then they turned the soil. Mfundo also invested in a bespoke drip irrigation system. They planted seeds and they waited.

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© WWF South Africa Sue Northam-Ras
Mfundo points to the green cotton ‘‘boll’’ inside which the soft cotton is formed.

In field to meet our farmer

We’d been invited to witness a very special day: the first day of Mfundo’s cotton harvest – 12 May.

The hand-picking team was only due to start once the strong morning sun had burnt off the dawn dew. If harvested while wet, the cotton will weigh more. Hence the cotton buyers require it to be 100% dry as they value cotton by weight and grading.

We spent the morning with Mfundo. I learnt about the lifecycle of cotton. I learnt that farmers are constantly having to balance the business risk of making crop decisions while dealing with what nature delivers in the form of unpredictable weather.

I picked a chunk of Mfundo’s cotton and marvelled at how soft it was. It felt like fluffy bunnies and brand-new soft baby blankets. We chatted a lot to Mfundo and found out that he was also a brand-new father. A baby girl.

I asked how he came to be a farmer. He told us that he studied quantity surveying (QS) after school but ended up following the farming life like his father. When his dad passed away in 2004, his family owned 10 hectares of sugarcane. While Mfundo wasn’t interested in farming at the time, he inherited the land and soon had to learn the sugar business. While working as a QS, he also tried his hand with poultry for a brief patch. He soon gave up an air-conditioned office job (and poultry) and by 2015 he had fully switched to the sweltering sugar-farming life.

That was seven years ago. Today Mfundo has 77 hectares of sugarcane. He has put in the hard work and made profit. He has invested consistently, buying new land whenever he had surplus to do so. He spoke about the importance of paying staff, loans and bills on time.

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© WWF South Africa Sue Northam-Ras
Mfundo Msimango, the pilot project farmer, with a handful of freshly picked cotton from his first harvest.

Grown with love and hand-picked with care

Within only five to six months, the cotton was ready to be harvested. Mfundo expressed excitement and pride to be holding this first batch of cotton in his hands. He relayed the delays in planting due to unexpected heavy December rains, followed by more heavy rains in early 2021 when Cyclone Eloise made landfall in Mozambique. Plus, a longer rainy stretch than normal for the time of year resulted in waterlogged fields. But many of the seeds took. And they sprouted.

Mfundo reflected with great joy that in February they’d spotted the first flowers. He shared what he’d learnt: once the creamy-white cotton flowers are pollinated they turn purple, and then they turn into a green bud-like ‘‘boll’’. This boll is the magic casing inside which the cotton grows. It is a truly fascinating feat of nature!

© WWF South Africa Sue Northam-Ras
Seasonal cotton pickers harvesting in Mfundo’s cotton field.

The case for intercropping cane with cotton

The project objectives were clear: to test the case for a local smallholder cotton crop, with the incentive for emerging farmers to intercrop sugarcane with cotton and reap profit and soil benefits.

I was especially keen to learn more about the environmental benefits. Luyanda told me how cotton gives back to nature in two main ways. First, far less water is needed to grow cotton compared with water-thirsty sugarcane. Second, good land preparation before planting cotton seeds goes a long way to help open the soil. The long taproot of the cotton plant continues to loosen the soil further, plus the nutrient-rich cotton leaves can be ploughed back into the soil after harvest.

If this pilot is scaled, it can add to the case for creating a local cotton processing plant – known as a gin – which is on the potential cards. The closest gin is currently 400 km away, in Limpopo.

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© WWF South Africa Sue Northam-Ras
Picking cotton provides part-time work for women in the rural Nkomazi area.

A cotton-fresh future

While many hard lessons were learnt during this pilot, there are glimmers of opportunity. Both for nature and a local cotton industry. I learnt that cotton can offer a diversified livelihood and a quick turnaround crop for smallholder producers, plus part-time work for seasonal cotton pickers compared to machine harvesting of sugarcane.

Good preparation of the ground combined with restoration of nutrient-depleted soil means that intercropping cane with cotton will enable healthier soil, more productive fields and better future yields whether planting sugar, cotton or vegetables. Vastly improved soil is a big value add in the farming world, especially for a field that was producing a low yield. Plus, cotton uses less water and could help to replenish the wider catchment which is under immense stress. Winning all round!

This Komati region is a landscape of abundant possibility: receiving higher rainfall, connected to an important water source area and home to many wild and wide rivers. It goes without saying that these factors are essential for growing food and enabling local livelihoods, as well as for wildlife and nature-based tourism. And WWF is keen to continue working with willing partners to ensure that important landscapes are safeguarded from rampant unsafe practices – for people and nature.

If this pilot project was to be successfully scaled, more smallholder farmers will hopefully want to grow cotton in a responsible manner, a local gin could be built and retailers like Woolworths could buy locally sourced sustainable cotton. This could be a feel-good story of supporting emerging farmers like Mfundo who can reap the benefits of farming cotton and giving back to nature.

I will always remember my experience of picking the softest piece of never-before-touched cotton. I also value my cotton-made jeans with renewed appreciation because I now know exactly how cotton grows. I am grateful for our time with farmer Mfundo in that cotton field amongst the cane.

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© WWF South Africa Sue Northam-Ras
Luyanda Njanjala, WWF’s Smallholder programme manager, weighing the day’s harvested cotton.
Sue Northam-Ras Photo
Sue Northam-Ras , Communications Manager: Environmental programmes

Sue believes in making information valuable by writing and shaping content in a way that gives it meaning. She packages the environmental content for WWF South Africa.

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