Cotton plants are quite unprepossessing and the fluffy white balls provide little indication of the economic importance of the raw material. Every year over 21 million tons of cotton are cultivated and processed throughout the world — hence the nickname “white gold”, as it is sometimes referred to. It is cultivated in huge quantities above all in China, India and the USA. Cotton growers in the United States of America receive considerable support through state subsidies.
In global terms, cotton production on the African continent is relatively small, but its huge economic significance for the individual countries can be seen in Benin, one of the poorest countries in the world, where it is the major crop in a farming industry that accounts for one third of the gross domestic product. In the 2009–10 season there were some 337,500 cotton growers in the small West African country. If their families are included, this means that around 2,362,500 people were dependent on this raw material — over a quarter of the population. Most African growers are smallholder famers working not on plantations but on their own fields alone with the aid of their families and without hired help or large machines. In this country, in which around one third of the population live in extreme poverty, a guaranteed income through the sale of raw cotton provides a basic livelihood.
Worldwide cotton production has dwindled in the last few years above all because of rising costs, shortage of labour, additional government subsidies for cereal growers in China, and export restrictions in India. According to Michael Otto, chairman of the board of the Aid by Trade Foundation, the cotton market is likely to experience an international shortage in the next few years. The US Department of Agriculture reckons that the global demand this season will be around 120.87 million bales while the harvest is expected to produce only 116.85 million. The result is rising raw material prices: between the beginning and end of October last year cotton prices rose by 22 per cent to reach a new record level. For African cotton growers this presents an opportunity but also a risk. The demand for cotton on the world market is greater than the supply, which means that the price and hence the earnings will be higher. At the same time, there is a danger that the major textile companies will look elsewhere and turn more to polyester than before.
Whereas polyester used to be condemned as harmful to the environment, the development of recycled polyester has considerably improved its image. It is made from plastic waste and can be processed with less water and washed at lower temperatures than cotton. The production and processing of polyester has increased more in the last decades than cotton: while the production figures for cotton have doubled since the 1970s, polyester production has risen fivefold to 42 million tons in 2008 compared to 25 million tons of cotton.
Fritz Grobien from the Plexus cotton company in Malawi even goes as far as to pronounce that “polyester is the true enemy of cotton”. The aim must be to revive cotton growing in Africa, on which so many people depend, by increasing productivity. It is with this in mind that he encourages growers and cotton businesses to join Cotton made in Africa, where they will learn how to increase their yield in the long term through sustainable cultivation. This initiative will help growers to consolidate their future through the cultivation of cotton. At the same time Cotton made in Africa will counteract the global decline in cultivation and will assist cotton in continuing to prevail on the world market against chemical fibres such as polyester.