Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Encounter with Bingu and his Cotton Economics

I must admit. I have meant Bingu once as Minister of Economic Planning in a Mangochi resort as a team of taskforce economists on the Malawi Growth Strategy in 2003. Something that i remember is his belief in cotton as a wonder crop to fix some of the problems Malawi is facing. Mining also featured highly and if i recollect myself, he said "I dont want a strategy that says we should be exprting sand" but some thing of value.

In today's discussion I look at cotton and revisit some of the beliefs Bingu had. For me it was an opportunity I cherish to talk directly with a person who i thOught was likely to be president in few months.I WAS CORRECT..it was so informal..no cops and all those folks that put on those dreaded helmets brandishing various military hardware that i have seen on TV. This is not the point. Some humour? Maybe. After all we are on cotton while on top of the Kabondwe Table mountain in my home village. No vipers and mambas..winter is fast approaching..so cool unscary chat.

Cotton prices slumped in the mid 1990's and our production has never peaked or atleast reached the highest record we had in 1986. Yet it offers the best opportunity for our farmers who for some reason have been cornered to believe that no maize no life. The rise of the textile industry in Asia has given hope. The African growth opportunity Act (AGOA) is offering more incentives for us to exploit the market in the US.

Yet, somehow I belive that authorities have somehow faultered. I am not competent to talk about the privatisation of Mapeto...i still belive it was the right thing to do except for the controversy. However, I have read in recent media reports that Mapeto is finding it hard to get the amount of cotton that it requires. I think there is something fundamentally wrong but very easy to address. Action from the Malawi government has not been strong enough to revive fortunes from this cash crop.

My synthesis is that there are lot of opportunities in this crop. The action that I have seen from governement is price regulation. There have been contracted battles about prices yet easy solutions are available and yet we are still in our slumbers. We have been slow in adopting biotechnology...call it genetically modified varieties. If you have problems with GMOs on cotton, perhaps this is the time to rethink. GMO cotton varieties have been proved to be high yielding, resistant to diseases and weeds....and no known environmental and health effects....its not food after all......and therefore requires no chemicals. Our current cotton varieties require heavy use of chemicals that often pollute the environement. Remember RIPCORD? Very deadly chemical used in cotton! Professor Kym Anderson, an eminent trade Economist, has shown that countries in Africa are likely to gain if they adopt GMO cotton varieties currently in use in China and the US.

Given the pace at which trade negotiations are going under the Doha Development Agenda, it will take many years for the US and the EU to remove subsidies to cotton. This means that our farmers will find it hard to compete fairly. Adoption of Cotton GMOs would lessen the costs farmers incur particulary on chemicals. GMO varieties on cotton are the sole domain of biotechnology firm, Mossanto, which is opertaing in Malawi. Why are we still in the slumber? It is time to move as quickly as possible and give those farmers in Nsanje, Chikwawa, Balaka, Salima, Rumphi and Karonga a new lease of life while giving the cotton user industry a locally sourced material and save some forex for drugs?

Lets get out the mountain. Its cold but pick any bush fruit as you descend save for a cobra bite.

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