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Cotton hides in plain sight, weaving itself into the fabric of our daily lives. From clothing to fuel and food, it's so ingrained that we often dismiss it as ordinary. As I spent time with South Africa’s “budding” new cotton farmers, a story of cotton’s transformative potential for South Africa emerged. And it is anything but ordinary.
Two years ago, we introduced you to Mfundo Msimango: a smallholder sugarcane farmer based in Mangweni, Mpumalanga, who wasn’t getting good yields from his sugarcane crops. Chosen as the first farmer for a ground-breaking initiative by WWF, Woolworths and Cotton SA, he ventured into the world of cotton farming. The project aimed not only to promote crop rotation, vital for soil rejuvenation, but also to boost farmers' income and support the local cotton market. Mfundo set aside five hectares for cotton farming, and six months later in May 2021, he proudly held fistfuls of soft, white cotton “bolls” - the “fruits” of his first harvest.
Now, the project has reached new heights. From Mfundo's five hectares, it has expanded to 22 hectares on 'Dwalini Farms' in neighbouring Malelane. This time, it is thanks to Thobani Lubisi, an experienced sugarcane grower, who took the reins and dedicated 22 hectares – about one-third of his land – to cotton which now grows alongside his lush sugarcane and litchi fields. In addition to a further injection of funds from Woolworths, as part of the transformational partnership with WWF, the project has also gained valuable support from government, with the Department of Rural Development covering just over a quarter of the crop’s production costs.
In anticipation, farmers and funders eagerly watched the first seeds being planted in December 2022. Just five short months later, Thobani's field was blanketed in white, dotted with thousands of fluffy cotton tufts bursting from their bolls. Over the next 10 weeks, dozens of workers flocked to the fields each day, expertly picking the cotton and stuffing 220kg bale bags to the brim. By the end of the harvest, they had gathered 154 bales: nearly 34 tons of cotton. The yield? About 1400kg of cotton per hectare. My colleague Luyanda Njanjala, WWF's Small Holder Farmer Programme Manager, tells me this number sadly falls below expectations with heavy rains and floods drowning out further growth for this dry, heat-loving, desert plant.
Luyanda and I ventured out to Thobani's farm shortly after his first cotton harvest, eager to speak to him about this milestone.
"What was your take on the experience?" I ask him. Thobani laughs, admitting, “Tough, tough, tough and labour-intensive.”
Thobani has been growing sugar cane for over 30 years, a crop that requires little tempering and is harvested by machine. Two-thirds of cotton in the world, on the other hand, is manually harvested – painstakingly hand-picked during the hottest hours of the day when the morning dew has evaporated. This keeps the cotton as dry as possible and avoids mould. For millions of people around the globe, cotton picking provides a crucial income and on Thobani’s farm, it’s no different. During the harvest of his first crop, he employed 156 pickers (most of them women) from surrounding villages who were paid for every kilogram they picked. Particularly industrious workers can pick between 25 - 30kgs in a day. In a country struggling with unemployment, cotton farming emerges as a beacon of hope with the potential to create jobs, empower women, and uplift communities. In fact, according to Cotton SA, for every hectare of land one person can be employed.
“It’s also good for these guys,” says Thobani, gesturing to two young interns in the barn, “for them to gain experience and to learn.” Thabile Khoza and Sandile Mkhonto are agriculture students at nearby universities and helped coordinate the growing and picking of the cotton.
I ask Thobani if he would grow cotton again. He pauses and then nods smiling, “I'm up for it. [I also] get to learn.”
Cotton farming has gotten its fair share of criticism around its sustainability status. As WWF’s Luyanda Njanjala explains: “We know that cotton cultivation is not always environmentally friendly. That’s why we work with Cotton SA to follow Better Cotton’s https://www.sustainablejungle.com/certifications/what-is-bci-cotton/standards for cotton farming. We work with small-scale farmers like Thobani and Mfundo to encourage more regenerative practices like reducing fertilisers and using drip irrigation, which saves water. According to Thobani, he only used 25ml of water a week for this cotton crops, compared to the 80ml he used for his sugar cane.”
The standard also encourages rotational cropping to shift away from “monoculture” practice of planting only sugarcane which depletes the soil and leads to a lower crop yield for the farmer (owed to the shallow roots of sugarcane). Introducing cotton can breathe new life into the soil as it penetrates the ground with its fascinating “tap root” system. This system loosens the soil, aerating it and enabling future crops to absorb water and nutrients more efficiently. For Thobani and Mfundo, it means boosted yields when they switch back to other crops.
Cotton also presents an attractive option as it is theft-resistant, requires no cold chain, and boasts a wide array of uses. It can be used in several value chains, from human and animal food to industrial materials and fertilisers. Remarkably, cotton makes up 27% of the textile needs of the world, yet it only takes up 3% of the world’s agricultural area and unlike its synthetic counterpart, uses no oil in its production and produces no microfibre pollution. [https://icac.org/truthaboutcotton/truthaboutcottoncategory?menuid=13]. Cotton is without doubt a valuable crop, which only heightens the importance of its sustainability journey.
“They have to go together, I think – the economy, the local community, sustainability, and the environment,” muses Tertius Schoeman of Cotton SA. Tertius works closely with small-holder farmers, playing a pivotal role in guiding, training, and supporting growers like Mfundo and Thobani in their cotton journey. Tertius was a game reserve manager in his younger years, a job that sparked a passion in him to empower poor communities that live in nature-abundant areas. Over coffee at their offices, Luyanda and I delve into his vision for a future where South Africa boasts a thriving cotton sector and a robust textile value chain.
According to Cotton SA, South Africa's cotton production has dwindled to approximately 60,000 bales annually, a significant drop from the 200,000 bales it produced in 2017. About 80% of this is exported, transformed into textiles abroad, and then re-imported.
The country now only hosts three operational spinners, compared to the 22 it had before 1993. This decline can be attributed to globalisation with countries like China offering unbeatably cheap textile production, compounded by the lack of local smallholder farmers still growing cotton.
The scarcity of cotton gins, particularly in regions like Mpumalanga, is also a factor in this decline. Smallholder farmers like Mfundo and Thobani must ship their cotton off to gins in other provinces far away, excluding them from the final step in their harvest cycle and adding to their costs. The establishment of a local gin could breathe new life into these areas by creating jobs, offering farmers more financial security through contracts and credit, and boosting the local textile industry.
What would it take to justify the establishment of a gin in a region, I ask. "A yield of about 10,000 tons of cotton a year, 4 500 hectares of operational land, and roughly R90 million," says Tertius.
“Is that all?” I jest.
As I cradle the soft cotton fibres in my hand, I'm inspired by the possibility of a thriving cotton industry in South Africa. Cotton's immense benefits, with its potential to uplift whole communities, revitalise our local industry and rejuvenate soil makes such a compelling case. It’s time South Africa's smallholder farmers “cottoned on,” took the leap and joined this budding industry so that the whirring of gins and spinners fill the air once again.
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