For over two decades, cotton farming has been the main source of income for Dymex Funsani’s family in Maitoni Village in Balaka District.
The family grows over 13 hectares of the crop in Traditional Authority Chanthunya.
However, yields and earnings have been dipping much to the disappointment of many smallholder farmers.
The slump has forced some farmers to stop producing cotton as prices of seed, fertiliser, pesticides and other farm inputs are skyrocketing.
“Unlike other crops, we cannot easily get cotton seed from agro-dealers and seed companies. Even after toiling on our farms, the returns are not satisfactory. Buyers offer low prices,” he says.
Since 2012, cotton production has been heavily shunned due to dwindling yields and prices as the cost of production soars.
The ripples of this meltdown on the economy have been telling.
According to the Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, farmers in the country produced less than 10 000 metric tonnes in 2016/17 growing season from 100 000 in 2011/12.
The country has lost almost $60 million (about K43.8 billion) in foreign exchange.
The cost on employment levels could be graver as around 150 000 farmers in the country remain underemployed, losing $26 million (about K18.9 billion) a year.
In September, African Institute for Corporate Citizenship (AICC), which links farmers to various players in agricultural chain of production, released a report which shows the cotton sector is “at the crossroads”.
The study, calling for government investment in inputs, indicates that although the cotton sector employs 300 000 smallholder farmers with nearly 250 000 hectares for cultivation, production levels have declined by 90 percent in the past six years.
But Funsani has not given up on the crop mostly grown in lakeshore districts of Karonga, Salima and Mangochi as well as Balaka, Nsanje and Chikwawa on the banks of Shire River.
The seasoned farmer still hopes that the sector will recover if government, agro-dealers and its partners find sustainable ways of supplying farm input affordable for all.
To Cotton Farmers Association (Cofa) chairperson in Chikwawa, Fanny Chapotoka, only a sustainable system of supplying inputs to farmers can yield results and revamp cotton production in the country.
Equally affected by low production are cotton ginners and crushers. Some of them have closed down.
Out of the 12 ginners in the country, only three, including the newly launched China-Africa Cotton Development Limited’s Malawi Cotton Company, are still operational.
China-Africa Cotton Development deputy general manager Shi Jingran says it is frustrating that the industry is suffocated by government’s reduced support and investment towards cotton production.
The Chinese-owned company is trying to reverse the trend by providing inputs to farmers, he says.
“Most farmers withdrew from producing cotton because they could not afford farm inputs,” he says.
In the 20 years, government and nongovernmental organisations have trialled various input supply models, starting with Admarc (1990-2000), Cotton Development Assistance Model (2003-2005), Cotton Production Up-scaling Model (2011-2014) and Contract Farming Model (2014-2015) just to address the challenge of input supply among farmers in the country with little success.
Cotton Council of Malawi (CCM) executive director Cosmas Luwanda blames the failure of these models on farmers who do not pay back loans to suppliers of farm inputs.
“Government, ginners and other players have tried to give farmers inputs, but most farmers defaulted. They even sell cotton to new buyers who did not invest in provision of inputs. These opportunistic buyers offer higher prices to the joy of farmers, but at the expense of ginners who invested in farmers in anticipation of a return on their investment in the next growing season,” Luwanda says.
Luwanda is convinced that no private company or ginner can risk their money by investing in farmers who are quick to sell their produce to the highest bidder.
He says cotton firms are still struggling to settle a K1.6 billion loan to various banks.
AICC chief executive officer Dr Felix Lombe says the non-governmental organisation is lobbying government to inject $4.8 million into a cotton input fund.
“The capital injection is a short-term supply of inputs within three to four years. This is to enable the industry recover,” he says.
Lombe backs a model in which all value chain players will contribute towards the cotton fund for its sustainability.
Luwanda says this is an opportune time for government to invest in the sector through a cotton development fund.
The council regulates the cotton sector in line with the Cotton Act which provides for the creation of a cotton fund responsible for supplying seed, pesticides and other goods and services.
The country has improved laws to empower cotton farmers associations to collect loans on time.
“The ball is in government’s hands to re-invest in the cotton industry,” he says.
Toiling in vain, Funsani and other 300 000 cotton farmers are looking for a turnaround as the crop they are accustomed to is losing its profitability.
They want a revamp and it begins with the decisions policymakers make. n