HomeLocal‘White gold’ farmers plead poverty, contemplate dumping the crop

‘White gold’ farmers plead poverty, contemplate dumping the crop

BY MOSES MUGUGUNYEKI

Shamiso Makechemu of Chiedza village in Kairezi ward 23 in Muzarabani district was forced to sell her two heifers to raise money to take her daughter to St Albert Hospital where she had been referred by the local clinic.

Makechemu had to sell the heifers because that was the only way she could support her daughter, who had to deliver via caesarean section.

Despite having two hectares of cotton, ready for harvest and outstanding money she is owed by the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe (Cottco) from last year’s produce, Makechemu had no option but to sell the two beasts for a song.

“If I did not have those two heifers what would have happened to my daughter, who had pregnancy-related complications?” she asked rhetorically.

“I had a cotton crop that was ready for harvest and no one wanted to buy the crop,” Makechemu told The Standard.

“They said they will have problems selling it and I had no choice, but to sell the two heifers.

“The hospital wanted US$250 for the operation and transport for both of us was around $60.

“I even sold one of my smartphones to add to the money I had realised from the sale of the heifers.”

Makechemu is among thousands of cotton farmers across the country that are considering dumping cotton farming as they continue receiving a wooden spoon for their sweat.

The farmers said cotton companies, especially Cottco, should process payments timeously and come up with competitive pricing regimes that are supported by favourable policies.

Cotton farmers are owed $1,5 billion by Cottco from last year’s deliveries.

At the time, the producer price of cotton was pegged at US$1,75 per kilogramme.

Makechemu said she was tired of empty promises from cotton companies and is contemplating switching to other cash crops such as sesame and sorghum.

She and her husband have had a cotton produce of exceptional quality every year, making them popular in their community.

Like any other farmer in Muzarabani, Makechemu was lured to grow the “white gold” by the attractive returns.

“In the past, cotton was the crop of choice here in Muzarabani,” she said.

“We knew that every year we would have enough money to send our children to school, buy food and clothes.

“This is not the case any more because no one is there to support the industry.”

Blasio Nhengo, who coordinates cotton growing in Kairezi Central, said growing the crop was no longer viable and was driving them into poverty.

“In the past, cotton companies supported the production of the crop and were guaranteed produce whenever we harvest,” Nhengo said.

“They processed the payments on time and everyone ended up being a cotton farmer.”

“Fast-track to 2020 and 2021, farmers are yet to be paid, for last year’s produce.

“I know someone who is owed money for 23 bales of cotton and this year, that same person has 46 bales.

“I think government should do something otherwise people will stop growing the crop.”

Farmers said they were hoping government would expedite payments to motivate them to continue growing the crop.

“I grew cotton on a small plot last time because it is my passion, but I am planning to diversify and grow sesame,” said Innocent Chigarira of Chikara village in ward 23.

“I am considering quitting cotton growing if the situation continues like this.”

Last month, Lands ministry secretary John Basera appeared before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Lands where he told MPs that the Finance ministry and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe were working out modalities to give Cottco the money to pay the farmers.

Farmers were assured that they would get their outstanding payments from last marketing season by May 31.

“Government is being deceitful. They asked us to supply them with our details and we did that.

“We are surprised that up to now we have not received any cent for last year’s produce,” said a farmer who spoke on conditions of anonymity.

In the wake of Cottco’s failure to pay farmers on time, government recently said it was taking over the majority shareholding in the cotton producing company.

“Cabinet noted with concern the continued failure to pay farmers for cotton delivered to Cottco and has decided to institute measures to increase its shareholding in Cottco to at least 51% in tandem with its contribution in the company and apparent support to farmers and the need to spur rural industrialisation,” Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa told a post Cabinet briefing in May.

“To this effect, the government will be paying farmers directly,” the government spokesperson said.

Farmers said events obtaining in the cotton industry heralded the death of the sector, which in the past was one of the biggest foreign currency  earners in the country.

Cottco came into being at the height of trade liberalisation in 1994 to replace the Cotton Marketing Board, which was then the sole cotton merchant in the country.

During that time Cargill joined the bandwagon, bringing some competition to the industry and  making growing cotton more feasible.

“Cottco and Cargill assisted in boosting productivity by making cotton a viable crop to grow. This was done through support on the ground in terms of training and inputs supply,” said Cleopas Dambakurima from Chishava village in Chiwenga village.

However, the introduction of more players in the cotton industry coupled with the demise of Cargill, brought misery to the farmers.

Cottco has been in the woods for some time, while Cargill closed down citing viability challenges.

A gloomy picture was painted about the future of the industry, as seen by the significant reduction in cotton production.

Cotton is a major cash crop around the world and Zimbabwe is one of the African countries that were earning millions from its cultivation.

However, cotton farming has been on the decline in Zimbabwe.

The country’s cotton production reached its lowest in the 2015/16 agricultural season when 28 000 tonnes were produced.

In the 2017/18 season, production rose to 143 000 tonnes, but declined again to 80 000 tonnes last year.

Since then, cotton production has been on a free-fall as seen by the number of farmers switching to other cash crops.

“Government should quickly address this issue about cotton.

“This crop was lucrative in its heyday. It had the potential to improve livelihoods and develop communities,” said Kairezi ward councillor Alderman Amon Mavedzenge.

“People are still passionate about growing the crop. They still want to grow it, but they are being discouraged by companies that are failing to honour their obligations.

“It’s not good for a big cotton producing company to lie to its producers. They lose their trust and eventually cotton companies will die. We need a change in the operations of cotton companies.”

Cottco has been using various payment methods for delivered cotton, with some farmers having received either full or part payment in the form of groceries and farming implements, something which many farmers were against.

Muzarabani joined Gokwe North and South as well as Sanyati districts among the top cotton growing areas in the country and enjoyed and recorded phenomenal infrastructural development just after independence.

However, their joy was short-lived following the opening of doors to more players, including Chinese merchants, who brought their own ways of doing business.

Cotton Producers Association of Zimbabwe president Stewart Mubonderi has always insisted that Cottco needed to clear outstanding payments to farmers if the cotton industry was to remain viable.

Zimbabwe has the capacity to produce over 350 000 tonnes of cotton.

However, in the past five years, yields have fallen to as low as 28 000 tonnes.

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