Copper-dependent Zambia eyes growing market for cotton by-products

15 December 2017

Cotton farmers and government officials agree to promote the production of by-products like sanitary pads and biomass fuels, to create jobs and diversify the copper-dependent economy.

About five dozen Zambian cotton farmers, ginners, oil crushers and government officials have drafted an action plan to boost the production of cotton by-products, such as briquettes and pellets for fuel made from cotton stalks, and women's sanitary pads made with cotton linters, the fuzz left after the cotton ginning process.

The government and cotton value chain representatives, meeting in Lusaka last week for a three-day UNCTAD workshop, said that cotton by-products represent an important means to improve incomes in the sector and help lessen the economy's dependence on copper, which on 5 December suffered its worst one-day price decline on global markets in almost three years.

Zambia, Africa's second-largest producer of the commodity after the Democratic Republic of Congo, has watched its economy rise and fall with the highs and lows of the volatile international price for copper, which accounts for a massive 70% of the country's exports.

During the commodities boom of the 2000s, with global demand high for the non-ferrous metal, the landlocked Southern African nation sped along at an average annual growth rate of more than 6%. But in 2014, copper prices plunged and the economy stalled.

Since then economic growth has averaged just under 3% - a hair below the country's annual population growth. This means that Zambia's per capita growth last year was actually negative (-0.1%), which is devastating news for the population, in particular the two-thirds that live in poverty.

So the government has resolved to diversify Zambia's economy by prioritizing agriculture - including cotton by-products - a labour-intensive sector that could provide employment in the country's rural areas, where poverty is even more rampant.

"The cotton value chain offers a number of advantages such as the vast potential to spur economic diversification and offer opportunities for promoting value addition and employment," John Mulongoti, Acting Permanent Secretary of Zambia's Ministry of Commerce, Trade and Industry, said at the workshop.

"It is the desire of the Ministry to see small-scale farmers, spinners, weavers and garment makers effectively utilize opportunities offered in this sector for better incomes and livelihoods," Mr. Mulongoti said. "The cotton value chain presents a low-hanging fruit that can enhance the creation of wealth and employment."

The adage "One man's trash is another man's treasure" could describe the growing demand for cotton by-products, such as the stalks of the plant, which are currently burnt in the field, or the waste fibres from the ginning process.

Everything from ice-cream to wall paper

"Cotton is the most important crop in Zambia -- more important than even maize," Aubrey Chibumba, representing the country's Crushers and Edible Oil Refiners Association, said in reference to the country's main staple crop, which in the past has benefitted from favorable government policies, such as a floor price and a comprehensive package of subsidies for inputs like fertilizer.

"We can use every part of the cotton plant," Mr. Chibumba said.

Fuzzy seed, for example, can be pressed into cottonseed oil, which is used for cooking or making cosmetics and soap. Linters can be processed into sanitary pads, medical supplies and polishing cloths. And cotton stalks can be used to make everything from paper, to biomass fuel, to compost.

According to a cotton industry website, "by-products are in everything from ice cream to wall paper, from hot dog casings to baseballs - not to mention lots of things we use at home, like cotton swabs, wipes, and even disposable diapers."

Newfound interest in cotton by-products is good news for the more than 250,000 small-scale farmers and the million or so family members - about 8% of the population - whose well-being depends directly on growing the soft, white fibre, which has seen its prices on international markets sag in the last three years.

This is especially true for cotton lint, which faces stiff competition from man-made fibers, and the price-dampening effect of the billions of dollars in support that main cotton-producing countries pay to their farmers.

As a result, cotton production in Zambia has remained volatile in the two decades since the sector was liberalized in the 1990s, reaching a modern low of 37,000 metric tonnes (MT) in 2011, before spiking to a record high of 275,000 MT in 2012. The following years, annual production averaged around 100,000 MT but fell to just over 55,000 MT in the 2016-17 growing season.

Likewise, cotton's importance in the national economy has dropped from its 2012 peak of 1.45% of GDP (US$309 million) to just 0.33% ($US65 million) in 2016.

Up to US$3 million burned each year

Zambian cotton is grown primarily by smallholder farmers. So the sector could be an effective tool for tackling the country's prevailing poverty - especially in rural areas - which actually worsened during the copper boom years. Between 2002 and 2010, the poverty headcount ratio at US$1.90 per day soared from 49% to 64%.

What's more, because the different parts of the cotton plant can be processed into finished products - soap from cottonseed, for example - the by-products sector can act as a basis for a number of value-added activities that can create new jobs and income streams for farmers, and new business opportunities for investors.

But so far Zambia hasn't made much use of cotton by-products' potential.

For example, no value added activities exist for cotton stalks, the main by-product in volume terms. This is because the 2005 Cotton Act requires farmers to destroy the stalks to prevent the spread of pests.

If however the law were changed so that cotton farmers could use the stalks to produce briquettes or pellets for fuel, for example, they could earn an additional US$3 million each year, according to a recent UNCTAD study.

But many of the cotton farmers at the workshop, as well as the general public and even many government officials, are unaware of the economic potential of cotton by-products.

"We need an advocacy campaign to make Zambians believe in the quality of cotton and its by-products in this country, to encourage them to consume locally," said Joseph Nkole, National Coordinator for the Cotton Association of Zambia, the country's largest farmers' association.

Action plan: sanitary pads and compost

Mr. Nkole was among the representatives from the cotton value chain who took part in the workshop. The event was part of the cotton by-product project UNCTAD is currently implementing in Zambia and three other Eastern and Southern African countries: Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

The project aims specifically to fill the data and policy gaps that hold back the cotton by-products sector.

Workshop participants agreed to a draft national action plan for cotton by-products, which aims to:

  • Develop a new industry to cotton by-product sanitary pads for Zambian women and girls, who often can't afford the imported products. Limited access to sanitary pads means that girls frequently miss school and women are hampered in their daily activities, both at work and at home.

  • Develop a new value chain for cotton stalks. The action plan recommends starting with a pilot supply chain to convert stalks into pellets and briquettes for heating, as well as compost.

Both schemes will rely on imported technologies from India, until Zambia is capable of producing the necessary equipment domestically. Transferring such technology is also a policy priority.

"The sector also offers opportunities for technological innovation and adaptation for the engineering sector in the production of equipment," Mr. Mulongoti said.

The next steps of the project include submitting the action plan for government approval, then implementing the pilot projects for sanitary pads and pellets and briquettes, and drafting investment profiles for these new activities, to attract investors from Zambia and abroad.

UNCTAD's cotton by-product project in Eastern and Southern Africa is funded through the UN Development Account, a mechanism set up in 1997 to channel UN regular budget resources to capacity-building projects in developing countries.