Cotton, pyrethrum can deliver quick rural jobs and manufacturing wins


Workers harvest pyrethrum at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (Kalro) in Molo, Nakuru County on August 06, 2021. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NMG

Cotton and pyrethrum are two industrial crops that simultaneously answer to the need for rural jobs and agro-industries, two economic opportunities targeted by President William Ruto’s government. These crops were major economic pillars in Kenya until their farming suddenly collapsed, mostly due to institutional collapse.

Efforts to revive the growing of the two crops started in 2020, so it will not be starting from scratch. What is immediately required are focused and well-resourced strategies to build value chains, this time around with the full involvement of county governments. Rushed implementation of IMF-driven economic liberalisation in mid-1990s crippled the cotton sub-sector.

Without transitional fiscal protection for local textile industries, imports of cheap clothes flooded the market, gradually demolishing Kenya’s cotton industry. With facilitative tax differentiation between locally produced textiles and imports, cotton farming and industries can be revived. Locally produced and imported clothes can coexist, with mitumba gradually declining as Kenyans are economically empowered.

There is no strong reason why Kenyan-grown cotton cannot feed the EPZ AGOA apparel industries if we focus on growing high-quality cotton at reasonable costs. Attention should be on improved seed quality, including biotech varieties, upgraded crop husbandry, and expanded ginning capacity in key cotton-growing counties.

Uganda and Tanzania have thriving cotton production sectors, an indication that Kenya can indeed do it. We need to return Thika, Eldoret and Kisumu to the cotton textile centres of excellence of yesteryears.

The pyrethrum sub-sector is much easier to revive. Kenya was the number one global producer and exporter of pyrethrin (the extract from pyrethrum flowers), a key ingredient in natural organic pesticides and insecticides. Export and local demands are inexhaustible, especially with the new global requirements for use of natural organic pesticides in agricultural food production.

The pyrethrum sub-sector collapsed in 2000s, mostly due to mismanagement and economic abuses at the Nakuru-based Pyrethrum Processing Company of Kenya (PPCK), the anchor value chain player. The company was without a board of directors for 10 years, until a new one was installed in early 2021 with mandate to reestablish corporate governance and revive collapsed value chains, which has started.

Pyrethrum is a quick maturing crop (three months) with a crop life of about four years after which it is replanted. It is a quick-win opportunity for jobs and industrialisation. Working closely with about 12 high-altitude counties, pyrethrum can substantially be back within two years.

George Wachira is a petroleum consultant, [email protected]