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Volatile markets, rebels take toll on Uganda cotton

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Prolonged rebel activities in Northern Uganda and the volatile international prices have taken a toll on cotton farmers with global prices halving pushing farmers to alternatives.

The Northern region of Uganda is predominantly a cotton growing zone but prolonged rebel activities in the region have dampened the farmers’ once aggressive venture. However, the pacifying of the area from rebels and return of peace has seen the crop gain a gradual momentum with production increasing every year.

The wobbly prices in the international markets have also done little to help the situation. According to Opolot Okassai from the ministry of agriculture, the scarcity of the product in the global market in the late 2000s saw the global prices of the product shoot from Ush900 per kilo to between Ush1600-Ush2800. “The increased global prices stimulated increased production with many farmers adopting the crop in order to reap from the lucrative price,” explained OPolot.

Unfortunately for these farmers, the high global prices took a reverse gear and the product price has been on a free fall a factor that has left many farmers cursing. According to Vicky Onyai who is working with Nebbi-based Agricultural Productivity Enhancement Forum (APEF), an organization that supports cotton farmers, noted that adequate rains in 2014 contributed to increased cotton yields and it’s ironical that they cannot benefit from the bumper harvest. “Cotton farmers continue to suffer lower prices despite sustaining Uganda’s third second biggest cash crop export after coffee and tea,” Onyai complained. According to figures from global market, cotton prices have consistently declined from Ush2800 shillings per kg in June 2014 to Ush1400 shillings in February 2015.

Figures from the Cotton Development Organization (CDO) suggest that one million bales of lint, equivalent to 200,000 tons, have been produced in the last cotton season, from 40 ginneries spread across the country. Uganda, East Africa’s second-biggest cotton producer after Tanzania, plants the crop from June through August and reaps it between December and February.

However, the available CDO data indicates that despite the increase in cotton production, only five percent of the cotton produced is used by the textile industry in Uganda. At least 95 percent of the lint is exported mainly to Singapore, China, UK and neighboring Kenya.

While the textile industry in Uganda consists mainly of small to medium sized with modest technology and low capacity, the seed processing companies appear to have higher capacity. This explains partly the low domestic utilization of lint compared to the domestic utilization of seed.

Cotton was introduced in Uganda by the British in the early twentieth century. Since then, cotton industry has evolved and undergone through many institutional and policy changes. During the 1960s, Uganda was Sub-Saharan Africa‘s largest cotton producer. However, political instability and poor policy choices of the 1970s led to the sector‘s precipitate decline. 

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