A decision by Ethiopia to start production of high yielding genetically modified cotton could tilt the scales against its rival textile sectors in Kenya and Madagascar, now starved of the raw material.
Ethiopia in June allowed for the cultivation of GMO cotton seedlings, a move the government hopes will bolster its plans of using fashion to clothe its industrial future.
It approved cultivation of two hybrid types of BT Cotton--JKCH 1050 and JKCH 1047, which officials hope will achieve higher yields than conventional varieties and save the country huge import bills of raw material and attract more investment to its textile industry.
BT cotton is genetically modified by the insertion of one or more genes from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, to protect it against caterpillar pests, especially the African bollworm, which is the most destructive.
The Ethiopian garment industry is currently in a renaissance phase, attracting key global fashion brands scotched by rising cost of labour, raw material and tax in China.
A raft of incentives including tax breaks, subsidies and cheap loans have brought the initial thrust for the Ethiopian textile industry and now its government hopes that the introduction of BT Cotton will help fill the remaining part of the equation by resolving its shortage of raw material, partly due to disease and climate change.
Cotton pricing and quality has been a drawback to Ethiopia’s aspirations of growing its textile industry, estimated to have a potential to attract more than $1billion in exports. Ethiopia banks on the new varieties to help fill up idle farmlands. While it is projected that 2.6 million hectares (ha) of land in Ethiopia is suitable for cotton cultivation, only 130,000ha has been put under the crop.
Analysts say the step by Ethiopia to boost its cotton output using the GMO varieties throws a challenge to rivals such as Kenya that are banking on textile manufacturing to drive economic transformation.
“Ethiopia’s economy has become the largest in East Africa because of textile manufacturing. If the Kenyan government focusses on that (textile manufacturing), Kenya will take back its place as the largest economy in the East Africa,” Charles Waruturu, the director of Horticulture Research Institute at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation(Karlo) said.
Scientists say the adoption of BT cotton in Kenya could help improve competitiveness of its textile industry.
Karlo statistics show that although Kenya has a potential to produce about 260,000 bales of cotton annually, it currently realises just about 28,000 bales. This translates to a yield of about 572 kilogrammes per hectare, nearly five times below a latent of 2,500 kilogrammes per hectare using BT cotton varieties.
Although the country has more than 400,000 hectares of land suitable for cotton growing, less than 35,000 hectares is presently under cotton---an indication of the huge potential the country has.
Currently textile firms in Kenya conventionally make bulk purchases of fabric from India, Hong Kong, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Taiwan. Although the imported fabric is preferred for its good quality, the arrangement has its downside because of the resultant long order-to-delivery period that restrict apparel firms from competing in the higher margin, fast-fashion segment of the market.
Industry estimates show it takes about a minimum 90 days to process and ship a single order to Kenya from markets such as China.
Having locally produced fabric could slash the current product order cycles by about half and boost Kenya’s competitiveness as a source market for apparels.
It would also create jobs and increase earnings for farmers and help bolster the country’s overall wealth.
The Export Processing Zones Authority(EPZA) estimates that Kenya’s textile import bill stood at about Sh17 billion ($170 million) in 2017.
The adaption of BT cotton in Kenya is not certain despite indications by scientists that it would help tackle the country’s current woes of getting raw material for its textile sector.
“The adaption of new crop technologies should not be feared. Modern biotechnology is a product enhanced and driven by knowledge. It is manipulating natural processes to develop products, systems or the environment that is of benefit to mankind,” Prof Edward Nguu, a lecturer at the Department of Biochemistry, University of Nairobi said.
National Performance Trials (NPT) on the cotton type is ongoing in Kibos, Kisumu, and will be rolled out in six other sites across the country.
Ethiopia became the second country in the Common Market for Eastern Africa (Comesa) to approve commercial production of BT cotton this year. In May, the Swaziland Environment Authority (SEA) approved the production of JKCH 1050 variety of BT cotton.
Statistics by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) showed that in 2016, Sudan grew a total of 120,600 hectares of Bt Cotton, an increase from 20,000 hectares when it was launched in 2012.
Currently, India is cultivating 11.8 million hectares of Bt Cotton.