Zimbabwe: Low cotton prices force small-scale farmers to consider their future

| July 8, 2013

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Michael Ndlovu faced a difficult decision a few years ago. The farmer grew cotton in Gokwe, a small rural town in Zimbabwe’s Midlands province. But his profits had dried up.

Gokwe, about 250 kilometres west of the capital Harare, is located in one of the driest parts of Zimbabwe. In the past, cotton provided a good income for most small-scale farmers in the area.

But things have changed over the last three years. Farmers are frustrated with the low prices offered by buyers. So Mr. Ndlovu decided to abandon cotton and switch to maize. He says, “Maize is a better option because no one can cheat me. I can sell fresh cobs to get my money back.” Although he does not earn a lot from his maize, Mr. Ndlovu says he gets by.

Cotton growers from across Zimbabwe met earlier this year and agreed that they need 85 US cents per kilogram to make a profit. Last year, they were offered the lowest cotton prices in southern Africa: 35 US cents per kilogram. In contrast, cotton growers in Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi were paid not less than 68 US cents per kilogram.

Brian Chireya has grown cotton in the area for over ten years. A cotton company helped Mr. Chireya negotiate the loan with a local bank. He explains: “Last year I entered a loan facility where I was [lent] $3500 US to buy inputs. But … we were offered low prices. I made a loss, so they took some of my belongings to offset the debt.”

Because he could not repay his debt with the proceeds from his cotton, he was forced to sell cattle and farming equipment. Many small-scale farmers say that cotton companies are conspiring to force them to accept low prices.

Sinikiwe Shonhe also grows cotton in the area. After the death of her husband seven years ago, she became the family breadwinner. She is another cotton farmer who does not like the prices she is offered. Last year, she protested by refusing to sell her cotton to the processing companies. Mrs. Shonhe says, “This did not help me because some other farmers … went behind our backs to sell their crops at ridiculous prices.”

Chief Nemangwe is a village head in Gokwe South. He thinks many farmers have lost faith in cotton companies. He says, “The survival of the ginners depends on their relationship with the people and … at this rate they will be forced to shut down.”

Morris Mukwe is the Secretary General of the Cotton Producers and Marketers Association of Zimbabwe. He thinks some of the bigger firms are forcing smaller companies to offer low prices. Mr. Mukwe says, “As an association, we advise farmers to look for the highest bidder for their crops.”

This is the third year in a row that Mr. Chireya and other farmers in the area have suffered from low prices. Although some are abandoning cotton for maize and other crops, Mr. Chireya will try again. He plans to give cotton one more try in the hope that prices will improve.

As for Mr. Ndlovu, he knows that maize needs much more water than cotton. Because rainfall is low and sporadic in the area, farmers who switch to maize are not guaranteed a bumper harvest. He admits as much, saying, “It’s a game of chance.”