For many years, Kerio Valley region in the Northern Kenya has been prone to cattle banditry. However, over the recent past, the region has enjoyed peace and normalcy. This has been attributed to former cattle rustlers dumping guns for the increasingly profitable cotton growing.
At Chegilet in Keiyo North, amid the sweltering heat, Enterprise met 21-year-old Collins Kiprotich, who is busy removing the white wool from the green and lush plants that dot their one-and-half acre family farm.
“This crop is good because it can survive this extreme heat unlike other crops such as maize. It also offers better returns, that is why I am motivated to assist my parents to grow and even harvest it,” says Mr Kiprotich, noting that last season they harvested 673 kilos of the crop.
Henry Komen, 34, another cotton farmer, says he has used proceeds from the crop to pay for his college fees besides supporting his family.
“For many years, cattle banditry was common here. Many young people were involved in it. But since we started growing this crop, we no longer witness such cases as more people are becoming busy in the farms,” he recalls.
Farmers in the drier Kerio Valley in Elgeyo-Marakwet and Baringo counties, who had abandoned cotton growing due to poor prices and lack of market, have started to re-plant the crop, as they seek to take advantage of the revived fortunes of Rivatex East Africa Limited.
Despite Kenyan and Indian governments injecting Sh6billion in the modernisation of the Eldoret-based textile firm, it has been hit by scarcity of raw materials, compelling it to operate below its capacity.
The turnaround in the subsector has seen the number of farmers embracing the crop rising rapidly. Early last year, there were about 50 farmers growing the crop in the region, but this number has since more than doubled to 123.
Emily Kemboi, another cotton grower, says the crop is usually graded into BR (before ripening) and AR (after ripening) in the market based on their outward appearance and quality.
“BR is of low quality fetching Sh26 per kilo while the AR is superior quality earning Sh52 per kilo. BR is yellowish while the AR is white and it has good lint and seeds which is removed and re-planted,” she explains.
In 2019, farmers in the locality harvested about 21 tonnes of cotton which they sold to private-owned Salawa ginnery in the neighbouring county. The ginnery buys the cotton from the farmers at Sh52 per kilo before it ends up in the textile firms such as Rivatex East Africa Limited.
“This is a good price and we hope that they will consider increasing the price to Sh60 per kilo to cushion farmers from drop in global market prices. This is the only cash crop that farmers don’t get a dividend,” says Ms Kemboi.
One of the major challenges faced by most farmers is the high cost of chemicals used to control stem borer and other pests attacking the crop.
“The problem is that we have to spray up to 11 times once it has started flowering until we start harvesting after five months,” says Mr Kiprotich.
In January this year, the Cabinet approved the commercialisation of the genetically modified cotton in the country, presenting a ray of hope to hundreds of local cotton growers spread across the country and struggling textile factories such as Rivatex that have been underperforming due to scarce raw materials.
Bt Cotton, which is a genetically modified cotton variety is resistant to pests and can yield up to three times as much as their conventional counterparts, making it a good deal for farmers, according to biotech experts.
Cotton farming collapsed in the mid-1990s following massive bollworm attacks and high production cost. This made conventional cotton farming unprofitable.
Also, lack of quality seeds and low productivity of the crop resulted in the decline of raw materials for local ginneries hence reduced operations and closure.
Farming of the Bt cotton is set to begin in April during the long rains after completion of environmental social impact assessment and farm demonstrations.
“We hope that the government will release the seeds by March ahead of planting season in April. From what we hear, this crop will change lives in the region since it will end cattle rustling ” says Peter Bargentunty, a cotton grower.