Cotton farmers abandon harvesting. . . as price uncertainty continues

Mr Eliot Makoni relates his ordeal while standing in his cotton field which he has not yet harvested due to price uncertainty in Chegutu recently
Mr Eliot Makoni relates his ordeal while standing in his cotton field which he has not yet harvested due to price uncertainty in Chegutu recently

Over the last decade, 43-year-old Ms Mashiya Nyamandu’s lifestyle has been improving, that is until cotton prices began nosediving.

Years back, proceeds from her cotton farming at Zimbo Farm in Chegutu enabled her to buy two cattle, her small herd currently stands at five. She also established a thriving poultry project with 500 birds.

All this, she says, came from a seasonal average revenue of US$4 000 obtained from about 20 bales of cotton which are produced from just four hectares.

However, during the last two seasons, the crop has fetched a measly average of 42 cents per kilogramme, a far cry from the pre-2011 seasons’ prices which were nearly a $1 for a kilogramme.

Due to the falling prices, Ms Nyamandu has reduced her cotton hectarage over the years. In 2011, she had four hectares under cotton, this she had to reduce to three in 2012 while last season was her worst with one hectare.

She revealed that income from her poultry project came in handy in financing the cotton farming and family upkeep.
Now due to the fact that she is injecting more than what she is drawing from the poultry project, the business has inevitably suffered.
She continues to watch helplessly as her fortunes wane due to the reduced cotton farming proceeds.

Traditionally, winter brought with it a hive of activity at Zimbo Farm as the cotton marketing season got into full swing.
At the beginning of April each year, Harare traders would descend on cotton farming communities to sell their various wares.

Ms Nyamandu, just like many other successful farmers, would place a bulk order for groceries and clothing items from cross-border traders.
However, the situation has changed.

This year’s cotton-selling season has delayed, prices are anticipated to remain low, just like they did during the previous two seasons.
Most cotton-farming families have given up on “luxuries” such as bread, sweets, drinks and biscuits usually associated with the marketing period.

“I could have visited my sister by now to place an order for groceries and clothes, but the marketing season has delayed and life is not the same anymore. We now rely on sweet potatoes for breakfast and my groceries have since dried up,” said Ms Nyamandu.

The single mother of three, who has been providing for her children for the past four years, is among thousands of cotton farmers who are contemplating abandoning cotton farming.

A visit to Ms Nyamandu’s farm revealed a sizeable portion with cotton crop that is ready for harvest, yet it remains in the field.
“I have deliberately dumped the cotton harvesting because of the uncertainty in the prices. I heard buyers want our cotton for as low as 25 cents,” said Ms Nyamandu.

“It would be better for me to ignore the cotton crop considering that the entire production process is labour intensive and cotton picking is even worse. Hired labour costs $1 per day per individual and I may require at least 10 people per hectare to spend up to a week picking and preparing the crop for sale.”

The fairly built woman looked into space with a dull face, she was obviously reflecting on the good old when the crop used to fetch better prices.
Ms Nyamandu then summarised her cotton-farming sorry story by blaming her woes on lack of competition in cotton marketing.

“If there was competition within the industry, prices would be determined by the forces of supply and demand and I strongly support the intervention by the Competition and Tariff Commission,” she said.

The Competition and Tariff Commission has directed individual cotton buyers to negotiate with individual farmers for cotton selling prices.
Previously, the buyers under the Cotton Ginners’ Association would negotiate with farmers’ unions and come up with a universal price margin.

However, the intervention by the Competition and Tariff Commission is aimed at ensuring various price margins depending on direct negotiations and cotton quality.

But farmers’ unions want the discussions to be held at their level, hence delays in selling the crop.
Another cotton farmer in Chegutu, Mr Elliot Makoni, who built his rural home through cotton farming, thought his lifestyle would continue improving, but sadly it is now in regress mode.

Last season, Mr Makoni was forced to sell part of his livestock to fund cotton farming after failing to get good returns from the crop last season.
Like Ms Nyamandu, he says he will only harvest his crop when prices are announced.

“The delay in the cotton marketing season has forced me to sell some maize meant for family consumption to speculative buyers in order to raise my daughter’s Ordinary Level examination fees. The maize was still moist so I could not sell it to the millers or Grain Marketing Board. I ended up selling to people who just bought it for a song,” said Mr Makoni regrettably.

He vowed to hold on to his cotton crop until better prices are announced.
Zimbo and its adjacent Hopewell farms were home to the production of the white gold in Chegutu and provided a source of livelihood to hundreds of families in the area.

However, in the just ended season, only six farmers have grown the crop with none of them exceeding two hectares.
A retired Agriculture Extension Services (Agritext) officer in the area, Mr Joseph Jiringo, said before 2012, Zimbo and Hopewell farms, which have about 116 families, could produce an average of 13 000kg of cotton annually.

The highest production in the areas was in 2005 when about 15 000kg of cotton was harvested.
With prices declining, production has followed suit and many farmers see no reason to continue growing the cash crop.

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