Project diary chapter one

Posted by Philippe Saner 1 1st May 2024

Cotton in Sub-Saharan Africa: Increasing crops through digitisation


In Sub-Saharan Africa, the Cotton4Impact project endeavours to digitise the cotton supply chain, aiming to empower smallholder farmers to boost their crops and mitigate the effects of escalating climate change.

Cotton is the most important natural fibre worldwide. Over 100 million households across 75 nations directly rely on cotton cultivation. Factoring in downstream processing, an additional 350 million individuals make their livelihood from cotton. In Africa, where approximately seven percent of global cotton cultivation occurs, millions of smallholder farmers and their families also live from cotton farming.

"We aim to support farmers in our African partner countries in cotton production," says Philippe Saner of Paul Reinhart AG, which, alongside Alliance Ginneries Ltd from Tanzania and Zambia, as well as Ivoire Coton from Côte d'Ivoire, initiated the "Cotton4Impact" project in 2021. "It's not only out of tradition, as we've been collaborating with our African partners for many years, but also out of responsibility for our supply chain." For over 230 years, Paul Reinhart AG has traded in cotton, including organic cotton sourced from Africa. However, smallholder farms are finding it increasingly hard to achieve profitable cotton crops through sustainable production methods.

Climate change and biodiversity loss present daunting challenges

Cotton thrives in regions with prolonged dry spells, yet successful cotton harvests depend on adequate water supply during the growth phase. African cotton fields are not artificially irrigated, so the crops depend on natural rainfall. Once the cotton capsules reach maturity, dry conditions are imperative for them to burst open. Only then can the natural fibres develop to their highest quality. However, advancing climate change disrupts rainfall patterns, posing an ever-growing risk to the harvests. But most small-scale farms lack the know-how on how to adapt cultivation methods to climate change.

Moreover, African cotton prices on international markets are subject to volatile fluctuations, and the African smallholder farmers compete against cotton grown on vast plantations in leading exporting nations like the USA, Brazil, and Australia. To secure the future of Sub-Saharan African cotton, increasing both crops and incomes for farmers is mandatory.

Introducing climate-adapted and resource-efficient farming practices

"Our project aims to digitise the cotton supply chain to secure the demand for African cotton and thus farmers' incomes," explains Philippe Saner. The primary objective is to increase cotton crops over the long term. Concurrently, the project wants to track the journey of cotton crops from the field through the ginning factory and spinning mill, in order to uphold the due diligence obligations that Reinhart AG is bound to – morally and legally.

"We're training farmers in what we call 'good agricultural practices,'" describes Boaz Ogola, Managing Director at Alliance Ginneries Ltd in Tanzania, the project's approach. These climate-adapted practices conserve natural resources, require less energy and water, while minimizing fertilizer and pesticide use. This not only reduces costs but also increases yields.

"We've engaged with farmers to learn about their information and support needs," says Philippe Saner. This varies from country to country, even from region to region. Meanwhile, the desired information is provided through an app and can be utilised by advisors of smallholder farmers even in remote areas where farms are scattered. The Cotton4Impact project also provides weather data distributed via SMS or voice messages to farmers. Are heavy rains or a storm imminent? Will there be any rainfall at all in the next days? Based on reliable data, producers can make crucial decisions, determining the optimal time and method for sowing and managing their fields. Currently, over 21,000 producers in Zambia and Tanzania benefit from these services, and nearly 40,000 users in Côte d'Ivoire. The goal is to extend these digital services to up to 100,000 cotton producers.

Cotton4Impact is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development within the Sub-Saharan Cotton Initiative and supported by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

The original article is published here.