A cacophony of random hooting and throbbing of engines as ubiquitous boda bodas, three-wheelers and matatus jostle defines Kitui Town's central business district.
The noise filters into the office of Taher Zavery, the managing director at Kitui Ginnery, an industrial behemoth standing defiantly on Nzambani Road. The thriving cotton ginnery, he reveals, has been churning out tonnes of lint and seed for 85 years now. It has the technological innovation to thank for its survival.
Kitui Ginnery is a beehive of activities for nine months in a year with workers ginning cotton. The production process is largely manual as Mr Zavery says he is not in a hurry to automate. The fiber is thoroughly refined and compressed into bales while the seed is crushed to produce oil and cake.
“A bale of cotton lint weighs 190 kilogrammes. We churn out about 11,000 bales yearly. This translates to less than 30 percent of our production capacity. Our biggest challenge has been accessing enough cotton to gin but with the comeback of cotton growing in Kitui and other counties which had abandoned the crop, there is some light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.
“We manufacture biodiesel from the oil squeezed from the cotton seeds. Bio-diesel is important for us as it fuels the factory and all our trucks. It has cut out production costs by between 20-30 percent. Some of our customers for bio-diesel are the UN Office in Nairobi and several eco-friendly lodges in the country.
“We sell some of the oil to manufacturers of cosmetics and soap. The cottonseed cake is highly sought by animal feed manufacturers. This is how we have been able to carry our weight and make profit amid turbulence in the cotton industry,” says Mr Zavery, referring to the production outage that has dogged the highly valued fibre crop for decades.
The production of cotton in the country became turbulent in the 1970s before it briefly stabilised in the 1980s following an intervention by the government and other development agencies.
When the production of cotton took a downward spiral for good in 1990s onwards many farmers in Kitui County and many other traditionally cotton-growing zones abandoned the crop completely and switched to other cash crops such as mangoes, citrus fruits and mung beans as the production of cotton farming became untenable following the influx of imported second clothes in the market.
Attacks by pests, especially the virulent cotton ball worm significantly ate into the value of cotton, discouraging the remaining cotton farmers from the cash crop. The privatisation of cotton ginneries in the 1990s and the subsequent collapse of farmers’ cooperatives were the last straws that broke the industry’s back.
Mr Zavery became nervous when he assumed the reins of Kitui Ginnery as he had no idea how to surmount the cotton production challenges and sustain the family heritage set up by his grandfather-Abdulahi Jiwaji-in 1935.
With his chin up the chartered accountant became bullish and borrowed heavily from the model of collapsed cotton farmers’ cooperatives. To ensure a constant supply of raw material, the ginnery has signed deals with some 7,000 small-scale cotton farmers in Kitui, Meru and Lamu counties.
The contracts entail providing the farmers with high-quality seeds and pesticides on credit and assuring them of a market for their produce. This is among the interventions Mr Fanuel Lubanga, the head of marketing at the Fibre Crops Directorate at the Ministry of Agriculture recommends for revitalising the cotton industry.
The government has been keen on revitalising the cotton value chain. A year ago it allowed farmers to use genetically modified seeds to enhance production by addressing cotton ball worms attacks. According to Mr Lubanga, an aggressive campaign to promote cotton growing has seen thousands of farmers adopt the crop.
However, farmers in some parts of the country decry high costs of seeds and reduced yields. "We are disappointed because the yield of genetically modified cotton was not as good as we expected," Kitui Agriculture Executive Emmanuel Kisangau is quoted telling a forum studying the production of cotton in the region recently.
Mr Kisangau’s statement that referred to the performance of the crop in the arid county summarised the frustrations of many cotton farmers across the country who had latched on to the hype that came with the new crop variety released to farmers exactly one season ago to increase acreage. Experts linked the poor performance to suppressed rainfall experienced in the region and poor management of the crop.
Although Mr Zavery says it is too early for industrialists like himself to feel the impact of the efforts the government has put in place to revitalise the production of cotton, he believes the industry is on the right path.
He, however, recommends that the government should offer cotton farmers subsidies to spur a significant increase in the production of the most important fiber crop.