Between harvests, cotton companies have little work for the employees in their ginning plant, which is why the majority of them are employed as seasonal workers each year. Elisé Balimaya Kabaya is one of them. Since 2014, she has been working as an electrician from the first to the last day of ginning in one of the ginning plants of SOCOMA, a Cotton made in Africa partner in Burkina Faso. Right at the very beginning when starting her job, the 27-year-old woman had an accident in which she injured her hand. SOCOMA paid all of the medical costs which is by no means given in countries such as Burkina Faso. This is not the only reason why she is happy to have this job, “With the money I earn here, I can pay for my books and school fees,” says Balimaya Kabaya. She has been studying for her general secondary school diploma for university entrance and will be taking the exams as an external candidate. “My biggest dream is to study electrical engineering and later find a really good job,” she confesses. “But I also learn a lot on the job at SOCOMA because I can see how something that I normally just read in theory in my books works in practice.” Balimaya Kabaya is one of the few women who work in the factory and the only one among the electricians. “But I have no problems with that,” she says. “Everyone respects me and takes me seriously because I am good at what I do."
Meet Choolwe Mweemba, a 28 year old smallholder cotton farmer from Simabwachi Village in the southern region of Zambia. As the mother of three boys, Choolwe has been growing cotton on her small farm since 2012. „I enjoy growing cotton because it gives me the income to support my family”, she says. To keep her soil healthy, Choolwe alternates growing cotton and growing other crops and vegetables, especially maize. Ever since she received basic economic training in the so-called Farmer Business Schools, she can run her farm like a small business. “I have learnt to save money in the bank. I used to keep my earnings in the house and spent it without budgeting. Now I plan expenses and buy inputs for farming.”
In April 2017, Papa Shabani, a young photographer, communication designer and artist from Uganda, accompanied Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) to its farming regions in Kasese, Uganda to capture CmiA in pictures. The project was part of the initiative’s campaign #WearASmile. Papa Shabani’s photography is vibrant, inspirational and honest and explores the boundary between art and documentary. This made him the perfect match for Cotton made in Africa’s colourful #WearASmile campaign. After the successful campaign launch, Papa reflects on the photoshoot in a short interview with CmiA:
CmiA: What got you started in photography?
Papa Shabani: I partly grew up with my grandmother and was exposed to a lot of photo journal works as a young boy. When I was a kid Africa looked different than now. A lot of the newspaper contents were kind of graphic, especially for a small boy of my age. The mid-90s were the time of bloody politics in Africa: the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Ugandan government fighting in the Congo or the Sudan’s ethnic wars. All this has shaped me and my ambition to become a photojournalist with a focus on documentary making.
In what way does your home country shape your work as a photographer?
Nowadays, the cultural exposure and vibrancy in Uganda is mega. Uganda’s population is very young - more than 73% is under 35 years old. And our neighbouring countries are also very colourful – Rwanda, the new South Sudan, Congo and Burundi. All of this keeps my inspiration for creating photography alive.
What was it like, shooting the “Wear a Smile” campaign for Cotton made in Africa in your home country Uganda?
It was a great and very informative experience for me! I learned a lot about the lives of smallholder farmers who produce the cotton that the world wears. It was an honour to be selected to document the present for the future, but also to be able to create photographs that will change the misconceptions about African cotton farmers. The story of CmiA is compelling for me and the lives of the farmers I photographed absolutely intrigued me.
How did you experience working with the locals in Kampala?
I often have photoshoots in the capital city. It’s usually easy for me in Kampala, where strangers rarely say no to my shutter-hungry index finger. In this campaign, the WearASmile sticker I carried around brought extra fun to it - it was a great shoot!
What do you want to express with the pictures you took for the „Wear a Smile“ campaign?
The message is simple and straightforward: the misconceptions we often have about the lives of African smallholder cotton farmers are not the ultimate reality and consumers should pay attention to what kind of cotton products they consume. Their priority should preferably be CmiA cotton, since it implies much better working and living conditions for the cotton farmers. And it’s also better for the environment!
What does the “Wear a Smile” campaign mean to you?
Papa Shabani: For me, Wear a Smile is a great campaign because it gives consumers a very deep insight into African smallholder farming and the work of CmiA. It connects consumers with the people that grow the cotton they wear, and that matters. The campaign introduces us to the lives of CmiA farmers and invites us into their world.
How did you perceive the cooperation between CmiA, the cotton farmers and ginnery workers in Uganda?
They all work together, that’s what I instantly noticed. Everyone is a part of Cotton made in Africa and the different groups - the farmers and the cotton companies and CmiA – they work together on eye level. And that is essential for achieving the CmiA vision. You can really see how the farmers benefit, and their families, too.
Thank you for the interview, Papa!
Isaac Banda is a very experienced cotton farmer. On his small farm in the Lundazi subregion of Zambia, he has been growing cotton since 1998. Through Cotton made in Africa, Issaac has received trainings in Good Agricultural Practices - and now also has access to affordable inputs on loan. “As a result, I have increased my cotton yields and incomes“, he reports. “I have built a two bedroom house, bought a cow and diversified into two other crops.” As the father of two daughters and three sons, Isaac provides for his family. “The cotton income has helped me to attain household food security and provide other household needs.”
Meet Bruce Chinyaka, CmiA smallholder farmer from Tobonte Village in southern Zambia. He is 35 years old and has two daughters and four sons. His eldest child is 15, his youngest has just been born. To support his family, Bruce startegrowing cotton back in 2001. When he joined the Cotton made in Africa initiative in 2005, he received a number of farmer trainings. „Through the trainings I have attended, I learned to diversify. Besides cotton and maize, I now grow soy and sunflower. My cotton income also gave me some capital to start up a small grocery store and support my family’s day to day needs.”
When Loft Mpili started to farm cotton according to the Cotton made in Africa criteria, he changed quite a few things on his small farm in Moono, Zambia. One of them was the way he handles pests. “I have been trained on integrated pest management (IPM) and the use of bio- pesticides”, he reports. “This has helped me conserve more beneficial insects on my fields and it’s also very good for my health. I do not get any headaches from spraying bio-pesticides and the empty containers are less harmful to the environment.” Loft is 21 years old and besides cotton, he also grows other crops and keeps and sells livestock.