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Africa's cotton champion weaves big dreams, but gets tangled in reality

Mali processes just 2% of its production; most is exported raw

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An artisan using a traditional loom. Mali lacks the facilities and enough trained workers to transform cotton into more value-added products.

Siby, Mali

FOR five months straight, the farm hands in the Malian village of Siby walk out together to the cotton fields, a clean sack in hand, for a long day of the meticulous work of picking the crop.

In this field not far from the border with Guinea, several teams are out from daybreak to sunset, the first link in a global production chain that takes the cotton from the plantation to consumers.

"For each hectare, we invest more than 100,000 CFA francs (around S$228) and after the harvest we can recoup that investment and have 150,000 CFA francs in profit," said the owner of the field, Daouda Camara.

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"But we need the cotton to be of good quality," he added.

With record production of more than 700,000 tonnes the past two seasons, Mali has retaken the title of Africa's cotton champion. The crop supports four million people, a quarter of the population.

The latest season, which runs from November to March, has just ended, but the cotton industry isn't resting on the laurels of its latest success.

The cotton farmers confederation set an ambitious objective of raising output to one million tonnes next season at its latest meeting, which was attended by Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga before he resigned this week over his government's handling of violence in the centre of the country.

But political and economic leaders also publicly bemoan that Mali, like other African producers, only processes a tiny fraction of its production. Most of the cotton is exported raw.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, at a recent conference on emerging African nations, lamented that Mali processes only 2 per cent of its cotton. "Pitiful! Shameful!" he told attendees.

The association of African cotton growers called on him to help convince others leaders to boost the processing of raw cotton into textiles in order to capture more of the added value.

The role of the state in supporting the cotton industry is already considerable, particularly via the state-owned Malian Textile Development Company (CMDT), which buys cotton from farmers.

Mr Camara said cotton farmers benefit from subsidised fertiliser, unlike farmers of other crops. They also have easier access to credit.

"With cotton farming the returns from a good season allow us to get good equipment," he said.

The CMDT has made progress in recent years in getting value out of by-products of separating the cotton fibre from seeds.

"Ten years ago, the cotton seeds would rot in the courtyard of the CMDT," said Bakary Togola, head of the APCAM association which unites farmers' organisations across the nation.

"Today, there are facilities which transform the cotton seeds into oil," he said, even if there are not enough yet.

But even rarer are facilities that take the tufts of cotton and spin them into yarn, let alone weave the yarn into cloth, steps in the production chain where there is more economic value to capture.

Experts in the sector say potential investors aiming to transform cotton in Mali face a series of obstacles including high energy costs, a lack of trained workers, and a small domestic market.

One only has to look at the Mali Textile Company, also known as Comatex. Created in 1968, the Mali state only now holds a 20 per cent stake with 80 per cent in the hands of the China Overseas Engineering Group (COVEC), to see it is tough going.

Its factory in the central city of Segou is the only one in the country to process cotton from the beginning to end.

"We transform the cotton from CMDT into thread, yarn to be woven, unbleached cloth, printed cloth," said Issa Sangare, Comatex's deputy CEO.

Yet the firm is facing severe financial difficulties.

"The market is flooded with imported textiles that are cheaper," he said. AFP