Cotton as a natural fiber is one of the most important raw materials in the textile value chain. With around 30 million tons projected for 2030, it ranges second of the total fiber demand according to FAO after polyester. African cotton is almost exclusively produced by smallholders who depend on it as a cash crop. This means, many farmers make a living for themselves and their kids with the income they gain from cotton. But the cotton business is tough. Farmers in rural Africa have to face hard physical work, low access to training, inputs and international trade as well as the consequences of climate change. On top of that, African farmers are hardly visible in public.
Two out of the one million farmers CmiA is cooperating with are Sabina and Paul – a cotton farming couple from Tanzania. Sabina and Paul grow cotton on their small farm together. They only had the chance to finish primary school. What helps them a lot on a daily basis are the agricultural trainings CmiA is offering farmers in close cooperation with the local cotton company Alliance. Thereby they learn about new and sustainable cultivation methods and techniques that help them improve their yields and income. The trainings are led by an extension officer who trains a small group of farmers on a regular basis on different aspects of cotton farming and beyond. During their trainings Sabina and Paul also learned about the bio-pesticides: “At the beginning we were wondering if it really works. But now, we are very happy with it”, they said and added satisfied “from the last to this season we were able increase our yields from 500kg to 800kg per acre.” Asked about what they wish for their son Johann, they said: “We want our children to learn more than we did. Our wish for Johann would be to become a teacher at school.“
Any textile bearing the Cotton made in Africa label is playing a valuable part in protecting the environment and supporting the people in the cotton growing regions. Consumers can recognize the textiles by a Cotton made in Africa label. In 2018, CmiA‘s record level of uptake and production experienced a historic level. The uptake of CmiA cotton rose by more than 14 percent on the previous year. 46 partnering retailers and brands produced about 103 million CmiA labelled textiles. About 100 textile producers in 19 textile production markets worldwide – thereof seven in Africa – work with CmiA certified cotton from Africa. A total of 580,000 tons of ginned cotton were certified according to the Cotton made in Africa standard in 2018.
Since the Rana Plaza garment factory building collapsed in 2013 burying more than 1,100 people, more and more of us are asking: Where do my T-shirts actually come from? Under what conditions are they produced? How do the people involved in producing my pullover live and work? What effects does our consumption have on our environment and the people behind our clothing? These and other questions have been gaining more attention over recent years. As a result, more and more of us want clothing that does not harm the environment or the people who have produced it.
If we want to protect the environment and improve production conditions, the message is clear: Less is more, and seals help in the search for sustainable products!
If garments bear a Cotton made in Africa label, consumers who buy them are supporting cotton farmers in Africa and protecting the environment. The Cotton made in Africa standard stands for sustainably produced cotton from Africa. The organisation works with a million cotton farmers in eleven Sub-Saharan African countries and certifies the work of smallholder farmers in the fields, the processing of the cotton raw material in ginning (deseeding) factories, and African cotton companies, which train the smallholders on site. Madeleine Tringal from Mafa-Kilda in Northern Cameroon regularly takes part in this training programme. One of the things she learns is the best crop rotation for the fields, to make the soil more fertile. “Thanks to the training I can plan well what I will grow on my field. This has the advantage for us as a family that we can use our resources more purposefully and thus even save money. In addition, the coaching has strengthened our cohesion in our farmer’s group. ” The training sessions help Madeleine to earn a livelihood from farming for herself and her five children. “The coaching has also brought our farmers’ group closer together”, explains Madeleine. The training is specially geared to the needs of the women participating.
For Madeleine and the other female cotton farmers participating in the programme, life has changed radically - for the better. They have more money in their pockets, they are more independent, and they have been able to strengthen their role as women in society. Textile companies can support this by partnering with the initiative, and we can support all this as consumers by buying a product with the CmiA label.
They feed and care for the entire family, work in the fields and carry heavy loads: in sub-Saharan Africa, women do a lot of the work in the fields, in the household, look after the well-being of the whole family, and yet they are dependent on their husbands. The reason: Women often lack rights, a position in society, and their own financial resources. In developing countries, unfortunately, they are still the most vulnerable to poverty and have fewer opportunities to receive an education.
This is where Nyambe comes in with her work. She has worked as a women’s representative for CGL (Parrogate) in Zambia, the land of waterfalls in southern Africa, since 2014 . Parrogate is a cotton company and certified partner of Cotton made in Africa (CmiA). As part of the cooperation between CGL and CmiA, Nyambe trains smallholder farmers in farming and agricultural topics. “I visit the women regularly and train them in topics such as equal rights, basic business knowledge, and educate them about child labor.” Most of the women did not have the opportunity to attend school. She knows exactly how to reach the women who often can neither read nor write: For this reason, the employee of CGL uses picture books in which typical situations from women’s everyday lives are depicted. In this way, Nyambe can explain to them even better how women can realize their own projects and become role models for others. “When the women see the illustrations, they can change perspective and understand the subject of equality much better.” In addition to offering these training courses, Nyambe is the contact person for special projects, the so-called community cooperation projects, which are supported by the Aid by Trade Foundation. This enables women’s groups to obtain start-up financing for their own projects. “My job is to write proposals and plan budgets on behalf of the women’s groups. The women share their ideas with me, I supervise their projects and keep track of them,” says the young woman.
The women take away a lot from Nyambe’s training: They learn to grow certified cotton, become more independent, and develop new project ideas. Nyambe was particularly impressed by one group of women. The women she helped after were given seed capital to open a clothing store. But they made much more out of it: They used their business knowledge and offered not only clothing but also food. “It was moving for me to see. The women showed me that they are independent and can make decisions themselves that benefit them and their business.”
Nyambe can be proud of her success and what she has achieved so far. “My greatest wish is to raise more money for the women’s groups so that I can help them change their lives in society. I want to give women hope who are trying to make a living from agriculture,” she says. “Empowering women helps the entire family.” Training and project support, as provided by Nyambe, are a central component of the Cotton made in Africa program. In this way, the initiative complements the measures laid down in the CmiA criteria for equal rights for women and men.
The work of the women’s representatives is co-financed by a donation from the Ana Kwa Ana Foundation. Ana Kwa Ana is a foundation established in 2009 by Janina Özen-Otto, daughter of AbTF founder Prof. Dr. Michael Otto: Hand in Hand), which cares for African HIV/AIDS orphans and street children and empowers women’s rights and their independence.
New Project in Mozambique
Kenya, Rwanda, and now Tanzania: Many countries in Africa have already banned plastic bags. In Germany, on the other hand, it appears that a similar ban will take effect only in 2020. Plastic waste is a big problem in Africa, and Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) introduced a new project in April 2019 to address this issue.
A collection system for empty plastic pesticide containers was created in Mozambique in close collaboration with local cotton company JFS. In April, the company has established 220 collection points for people to drop off their used containers, which it then sells to a regional recycling company. The resulting sales revenue benefit the village residents, who receive a small amount of money for every container they turn in. Any additional profit flows back into the project, ensuring its continuation in the long term. This programme offers up to 20,000 farmers from the surrounding villages an opportunity to supplement their income while protecting the environment by properly disposing of the containers which will be recycled by a local company.
The collection points are staffed by over 220 women, including cotton farmers and others from the village communities. They have been trained as eco-activists and have learnt how to handle the canisters safely. For this task they were provided with special equipment including t-shirts, training materials, face masks, gloves, and soap for washing up after work.
The project is gaining publicity thanks to radio shows, an explanatory video, and, naturally, the eco-activists themselves. As a result, the farmers and the other village residents have become more cognisant of how they deal with their plastic waste, learning how important proper disposal is for them and the environment. Venancio Airone is glad to be among the eco-activists . The cotton farmer reports how well the project has been received by his colleagues, adding, “And it is good for me because I dispose of the containers differently now, too. This is much better than burning them or throwing them into the river.”
28-year-old cotton farmer Elis Pedro Manuel sees the collection and recycling project as a step in the right direction as well. “It is good for us farmers and for our soil. In the past, we would have to bury or burn the containers. Today, we know how harmful that is for our environment and how it makes our soil less fertile”, she says.
When we think of climate protection, a few things generally spring to mind: We should fly less to cut CO2. Also, if we eat less meat, less land will be needed to produce animal feed. The way that people use land does indeed have an enormous influence on the climate. That is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has dedicated a special report to this subject. The report states that people are already using around 70 percent of the world's surface area (excluding areas covered in ice). They are using these areas to grow food, animal feed, and textile fibre, to manage forests, and to produce energy. If we take a look at how this generally occurs, a worrying picture emerges: Valuable forests are being cut down, for cattle grazing or to grow oil palm, for example. Not a nice image! For this reason, when we use valuable land, we should do so in the most sustainable and environmentally friendly way possible.
What can we do as consumers? A lot—for example, we can be more environmentally aware when we buy food and clothing. Is it really time for a new T-shirt? And if so, where does it actually come from? How is the cotton in the T-shirt grown? A huge proportion of cotton harvested comes from monocultures in Brazil and the United States—gigantic machines and poisonous defoliants are used in the process.
Luckily, there is another way. About a million smallholder farmers from eleven African countries are currently being trained in sustainable and efficient cultivation methods by Cotton made in Africa. Growing cotton ensures the livelihood of many African smallholder farmers and their families. CmiA cooperates with certified cotton companies on the ground. Trained cotton company staff teaches the smallholder farmers how they can grow cotton in a way that is as kind as possible to the environment, and which methods can help them to use their resources efficiently. “Before CmiA, I used to plant the cotton haphazardly, but now I know about good agricultural practices says Miriam Muhindo, a cotton farmer from Uganda. Miriam has learnt valuable expertise about cotton growing in the agricultural trainings. This has allowed her to increase not just her harvest, but also her income. “I now consider early land preparation, early planting, proper plant population, early weed control and proper pest control for improved yield”, she explains.
Gentle pest control, natural rainfall rather than irrigation, and using crop rotation for soil fertility—that is what smart and sustainable land use looks like. This is how things can be done if we want to protect the environment and the climate, and also buy a new T-shirt sometimes.
Taking notes, understanding instructions, calculating income and expenditure: In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, many people are unable to read, write, or perform simple arithmetic. Often the nearest school is just too far away, the school buildings are deteriorating and barely usable, there are not enough teachers, or it is simply too expensive for parents to send their children to school. Education as basic knowledge is so important to them: it opens up to them a way out of poverty into a better life.
One of the main focuses of Cotton made in Africa is therefore in this area: access to education should be easier or even made possible for children and adults alike. Smallholder cotton farmers learn why they prefer to cultivate their plants using sustainable methods and at the same time improve their own living conditions and those of their families in agricultural training courses and farmer business courses. “Literacy for adults helps farmers keep records of their agricultural activities and sell their cotton better,” explains Waita Simeyi. He is a cotton farmer and teacher of functional adult literacy (FAL) in Uganda and teaches other smallholder farmers how to read and write.
Waita thus contributes to sustainable development in his country. No progress without basic education. That is why it is so important that as many people as possible, especially in rural Africa, have the opportunity to learn. Basic schooling makes it easier for smallholder farmers to take full advantage of agricultural training and other support measures. “It helps them apply the training program for smallholder farmers, improve their agricultural skills, and increase yields through the use of efficient farming methods,” says Waita.
The result is obvious: higher yields, a better market position, and a better life for the entire family. Something that Waita was also able to experience firsthand: “My own crop yields have also increased. My livelihood has improved so much that I was able to build a house and send my two children to school." Waita has recognized the advantages of being able to read and write and empower many other smallholder farmers and fellow human beings in Uganda while serving as a role model.