Growing methods

In many parts of the world, cotton is grown in large plantations, but in Africa it is almost exclusively cultivated by smallholder farmers using crop rotation. Crop rotation means that the cotton is grown alternately with other crops, such as basic food crops like maize, soy or groundnuts. That reduces both leaching from the soil and the occurrence of pests. Cotton is often a complementary cash crop: it is cultivated for sale, alongside foods grown for subsistence. The cultivation methods imparted by Cotton Made in Africa also support smallholder farmers in growing food and thus make an important contribution to food security.


Artificial irrigation, often used in large plantations, is practically unknown in Africa. Smallholder farmers practise rain-fed cultivation, in other words they rely on natural rainfall being sufficient to water the crops. The wet and dry phases in agricultural parts of Africa suit the cotton plant. In its growth phases, cotton is highly sensitive to excess moisture: In the first phase of sprouting and growth, the cotton plant needs moist soil, whereas in the ripening phase too much moisture damages the quality of the fibres. All available rainwater has to be used efficiently, especially in drier parts of Africa. That requires the balanced use of fertiliser or mulching, whereby the soil between the cotton plants is covered with organic material, such as leaves, to reduce the loss of moisture through evaporation.

It is man versus machine: cotton in the US, Brazil and Australia is harvested using gigantic machines, but in agricultural parts of Africa harvesting is done mainly by hand. Of course, that takes much longer, but it also has major benefits compared with machine harvesting. The machine makes one pass through the cotton field taking, not only the cotton boll, but everything in the field; however, human pickers work in a much more careful and environmentally-sound way, taking only completely mature fibre bolls. Hand-picked cotton is also cleaner, because the machines take considerable quantities of soil, leaves, twigs, etc. with them.

Another benefit is that hand picking, unlike machine harvesting, does not use defoliants, so there is less chemical contamination of the cotton. However, there are also quality issues that face African hand-picked cotton. Plastic waste has unfortunately spread, even to remote villages in Africa, and may lead to the presence of foreign material. CmiA is tackling this problem in cooperation with its African partners.

Pesticide use

No other plant is as attractive to pests and viruses as cotton. The use of pesticides is thus a negative side effect of cotton cultivation worldwide. Only a small number of alternative farmers completely abstain from using pesticides and sell their raw material as organic cotton. The proportion of organic cotton on the global market is currently still low, which is partly due to its higher production costs.

Genetically modified cotton

Cotton pests show increasing resistance to the pesticides used. Part of the global cotton industry sees genetically modified cotton, that protects itself against some pests with its own insecticide, as a solution to this problem. More than 90 percent of cotton cultivated in the main cotton-growing countries—the USA, India, and China—is now genetically modified. Many African cotton farmers view genetically modified cotton as a technical advance from which they do not want to be excluded. Currently, however, the only places in Sub-Saharan Africa where genetically modified cotton is grown by smallholder farmers are in South Africa, Sudan, and Burkina Faso. Cotton made in Africa has made a commitment not to allow the cultivation of genetically modified cotton under the initiative. The use of genetically modified seeds is part of the exclusion criteria (Exclusion Criteria No. 14) of Cotton made in Africa standard.

Cotton made in Africa

Cotton from Cotton made in Africa is produced by smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa in accordance with CmiA standard criteria. Specifically, this means that the cotton is grown under rain-fed conditions, cultivated using pesticides and fertilisers in an effective and responsible way, and harvested by hand. Cotton made in Africa has specified the farming methods that are permitted in a list of criteria, with compliance regularly checked as part of a verification process.

Fine fibres – Cotton from Africa

Cotton from Africa has relatively long fibres and is carefully picked by hand. That makes it a high-quality raw material. It is no coincidence that cotton is a popular material for T-shirts, trousers and shirts: cotton feels soft and pleasant on the skin, is breathable, and is absorbent.

Cotton is a natural fibre obtained from the seed hairs of the cotton plant (Gossypium spp.) and comprises mainly cellulose. After pollination, the flower of the cotton shrub produces a fruit capsule (boll), about the size of a walnut. In this period, the cotton seeds forming inside the capsule are bundles of long fibres (called “staple”) and a layer of shorter, fluffy fibres (called “linter”). Only the long fibres are used for textile production. When the fruit capsule fully matures, it bursts open and the “cotton fluff” spills out.

Cotton yarn is spun from the seed fibres, which can grow to lengths of more than 40 millimetres. Their strength and their unique structure make them ideal for spinning: the fibres are twisted like a corkscrew, so they do not tear during spinning. The short fluffy fibres (linter) cannot be spun, but are used elsewhere, such as in the manufacture of cellulose.

Fibre length

The quality of raw cotton is assessed on a number of different criteria. These include colour, purity, staple length, fineness, strength, and evenness. The decisive factor for the textile industry is the length of staple fibre: the longer the fibre, the higher the quality. Staple length varies between 18 and 42 millimetres. There are four staple categories: short, medium, long and extra-long.

African cotton is high quality

African cotton flourishes under the right conditions with rain-fed cultivation and plenty of sunshine. It has relatively long fibres, that fall into the medium staple length category (1 1/8 inch, about 28.5 mm) suitable for producing yarns that can be used for a range of applications, and which are processed worldwide to supply materials for fashion and home textiles.

African cotton is mostly grown by smallholder farmers and is hand-picked, which ensures its good quality. Cotton made in Africa cotton has time to ripen and is harvested by hand at the right time, before being taken for further processing.

The high quality of African cotton is further enhanced by Cotton made in Africa’s interventions. Training programmes are provided for smallholder farmers such as on the use of modern, efficient growing methods that minimise the use of pesticides, helping them to increase their yields and the quality of the fibres. Trials are currently being conducted in Benin on the use of cotton bags for harvesting to reduce contamination with leftover plastic materials, which are unfortunately found ever more often in the fields of Africa. In some Cotton made in Africa growing regions, the cotton is manually cleaned of impurities once again before it goes on to be ginned in the next stage of processing.

The threat to biodiversity

Biodiversity (a term coined as a shortened form of “biological diversity”) is understood to refer to variations among all organised forms of life in terms of varieties of species, genetic diversity of flora and fauna, and differences between whole ecosystems. These three levels are very closely interlinked: animals and plants need intact ecosystems and sufficient genetic variability. But an ecosystem only works if it is home to a whole range of species. Intact habitats are also essential for the genetic diversity of an ecosystem.

If this equilibrium is disturbed by external influences, it can often have unexpected consequences for people as well as for flora and fauna. At the end of a complex chain of cause and effect, whole species may become extinct and ecosystems may even be destroyed. This makes it increasingly difficult for nature to cope with extreme climatic events such as long droughts. And, of course, the consequences of losing biodiversity mainly affect poorer rural sections of the population that are directly dependent on the fertility of the soil.

Problems caused by monocultures and plantations

Large-scale agricultural cultivation of cotton threatens biodiversity in its environment as it is commonly characterised by monocultures, the heavy use of pesticides, and high-water consumption levels. There is too little time to enrich the soil with natural nutrients (which Cotton made in Africa achieves, among other things, through implementing crop rotation with legumes, soybeans, or peanuts). Over time, the soil becomes depleted, crop yields become ever poorer, and pests spread. As a result, some farmers have to use increasing amounts of pesticides and fertilisers in order to secure their crops. In the end, what’s left is barren wasteland and new crop areas need to be developed. The groundwater is heavily contaminated, which might cause disease among humans and animals.
Another problem is the high level of water consumption: the heavy use of artificial irrigation often leads to soil erosion and salinisation. As the groundwater level falls, and rivers or wetlands dry out, drinking water for humans and animals becomes scarce.

The necessity of rethinking agricultural concepts

These effects can be countered by measures for sustainable cotton growing, as set out and agreed in the criteria of Cotton made in Africa. These aim to bring agriculture into harmony with nature and to contribute towards the long-term maintenance of biodiversity. There are a number of cultivation methods that contribute to protecting species diversity, the most important of which is crop rotation when growing cotton, which helps to maintain the quality of the soil. Other measures for growing cotton sustainably are the efficient use of pesticides and fertilisers and the responsible use of water.

Extensive cotton growing demonstrably causes great damage in some parts of the world. It is necessary to think differently in order to reduce negative impacts on humans and the environment, and to maintain diversity in the web of life. Diversity is not only a value in itself, it also has economic significance, especially in the developing countries. Sustainable thinking in agriculture can help to secure people’s livelihoods.