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Day-to-day with the cotton growers of Burkina, by Camille Renaudin

A doctoral student in geography at the Paul Valéry University of Montpellier, Camille Renaudin, has been conducting thesis research in the form of a socio-geographic study of the social conditions of rural populations in the cotton growing areas of subsaharan Africa. With support from FARM, she is currently conducting research in the east of Burkina Faso in areas that are under the management of the Cotton Company of Gourma (SOCOMA).

In order best to capture the realities on the ground and the local impact of the difficulties faced overall by the African cotton growing industry, Camille Renaudin has chosen a methodology based on surveys and questionnaires that facilitate proximity and dialogue with cotton growers and their families.

Read the midway report (pdf, 280 ko)

Here are several extracts from her journal :

5 august 2007

This is my last message before leaving for France. The period for planting cotton in Burkina ended on July 31, but producers who planted after the 20th took a big risk. The rainy season was late arriving, but it’s not sure that it has moved to later in the year, especially since the total rainfall has reached "normal" levels. With planting done, the cotton companies are starting to total up the acreage planted for a glimpse of what promises to be a disastrous season. In the east of Burkina, in the third week of July, 30,206 hectares planted in cotton could be counted. A year ago, the total was nearly 60,000. It doesn’t take a calculator to figure out that the three cotton gin factories in the region won’t all be operating, creating that much more unemployment.

In Paris the process of privatizing Dagris seems to have stalled, and this uncertainty may well make itself felt in the way Socoma operates and on the future of the cotton-growing industry in eastern Burkina. When French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Senegal and met with President Wade, the two discussed the cotton question and the privatization of Dagris, which is the majority shareholder in Socoma. Abdoulaye Wade proposed a takeover of Dagris by African nations, a suggestion which at least has the merit of moving the issue onto a political level, but which could slow down the privatization process. The latter nevertheless is considered inevitable by just about everybody. President Sarkozy insisted in his speech that "there is no hurry" to settle this question, although the situation in which both Socoma and cotton-growing small farmers find themselves is precarious and highly uncertain. As for the multilateral organizations, whether it is a matter of indifference or strategic choice, their attitude is difficult to understand, especially from the point of view of the African small farmer. How can they ignore a situation where thousands of producers who already live near the poverty line risk further pauperization ? The risk of frustration is high ; "when you have experienced an improvement in your living conditions, it is difficult to accept the idea of going backwards, or else...?" These same institutions helped build elegant ministry buildings at Ouaga 2000. Although the State of Burkina Faso is already on transfusion and the constraints of isolation are steep (energy for transportation is expensive), nonetheless there is tremendous potential in this region, potential that is badly used or simply undervalued.

In Fada people told me they wanted to stay in touch because where I was headed I "would be closer to God". Really ? "Sure, haven’t you noticed that God tilts his head and closes one eye, the left one ? That’s why he doesn’t see Africa very well." For my part, I think he’s not the only one to close his eyes to Africa.

My sojourn in Burkina has come to an end. Let’s hope that when I return next year, the situation will have improved.

Talk to you soon,


23 July 2007

A week in Ouagadougou is a chance to collect other points of view – more institutional ones – on the cotton growing situation in Burkina. These views echo the worries heard at the grassroots on one important point : "the situation is highly regrettable especially in light of the many thousands of lives it affects"... .Both the State and the national growers’ union (UNPCP) have been asking since 2006 for an emergency plan to be implemented. Since then, the cotton sector has been the object of a number of plans to get it started again such as BOAD, a project to create sub-regional units of transformation ; FAD for encouraging the cotton textile industry ; ONUDI, the West African cotton transformation project, and others. This is not to mention the set of initiatives concerned with organic cotton, fair-trade cotton and the like. It has come to a point where the European Union is funding a study to inventory all of the pro-cotton initiatives and evaluate their contribution.

In the meantime the World Bank has uttered doubts about soundness of the idea of a smoothing fund for fixing cotton prices after having supported the idea at the outset. This rethinking is provoking fear that these mechanisms will not be funded. For the moment only the French Development Agency (AFD) has committed funds, promising some three million euros. This is a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 25 million euros needed to launch a smoothing fund, which most cotton sector actors feel would help the whole sector "to breathe".

By the same token, cotton has not been included in the 10th European Development Funds (EDF), a decision for which the EU says it is not responsible, since "priorities are established by concerted talks with the State" (receving the aid). The cotton question will come up, but it is not "top priority" even if it is important to both the aided State and its producers. This is yet another example of the uncertainties and suspense surrounding the future of the cotton growing sector. More and more talk is heard about "diversification" at the same time that the idea of an alternative is flatly rejected ; "realistically, nothing can replace cotton".

Returning to Diabo, I hear a grower tell me that when he was born and began to walk, what he saw in front of him was a donkey cart and that he understood that life was not going to be easy for him, that he would have to work hard. Some are born now in the city and find a car or motorcycle in front of their house, which even if they are not in repair indicate a certain status. The grower goes on to explain that although he is "donkey cart" he was able when cotton prices were good to buy a scooter, and he hopes to be able to send his child to school to give him "his chance". At current cotton price levels, it’s not sure he’ll be able to keep his scooter, but he continues to work just as hard...

This vehicular metaphor aptly conveys the social elevator made possible by cotton growing. Success, as illustrated by owning a scooter, is no longer limited to city folk. But tomorrow ?

Talk to you soon, Camille

30 June 2007

To get to the village of Pissiengdin, here in the African bush near Saatenga, Mali, you take a narrow trail through the fields. In this village there is a cotton growers’ association, named "Laguimtaaba", founded in 2002 and made up of 42 members. Here each family includes at least one cotton producer. On the trail to get here we ran across a number of farmers who had just sown the collective field belonging to the association. The two hectare plot provides income used to drill a new well, maintain the pump and "assist families in cases of dire need". I sat down with eight growers to discuss their situation. (While we were talking an older villager joined us, "not to talk, but to take the ’white girl’ home and marry her".) Each one talked about what cotton growing, which has only recently arrived here, has meant to them. As they are quick to point out, you just have to look around to see the effects, with "sheet metal houses going up everywhere".

In the village, there is a three-room grade school, where what they call "multigrade" classes are taught. The school teacher divides his time between 2 or 3 levels. The old man who joined us can’t resist finally getting into the discussion and adds that "these people are all illiterate but they want to give their children a chance". Pupils who do well can then go on to the middle school in Diabo, the county seat. It’s the money earned from growing cotton that pays for tuition and room and board. It’s also cotton earnings that constitute "a little money set aside" for paying visits to the doctor or for prescription drugs at the Health Center in Saatenga. And if a family hasn’t been able to save, they can borrow from the growers’’ association to cover medical costs when a family member is sick.

Most of the acreage tilled by the families is in cereals. Each farmer sets aside a parcel for planting cotton and rotates this with his other crops. In this way, the fertilizer used on the cotton also benefits the other crops, increasing yields. "We harvest more millet on less land." These days, with fertilizer prices rising, the villagers are afraid of "falling into credit". This year they plan to buy just "a little, a very little" in order to keep their association solvent and avoid being suspended by the cotton company. Of the 42 members, 18 will not plant cotton this year, a crop that "has disapointed them". Late payments for their harvest by the cotton company has forced many to borrow money or to sell off grain reserves. Then when the money comes in, it goes back out in repayments. The farmers joke that "the day the agent brings the cotton money, the shopkeeper that lent you money just happens to drop by to say hello !". Here money is lent without interest, but you do have to know how to "thank" your creditor. This growing season, most farmers are favoring millet, in order to feed the family. They’ll sow cotton next season. "If we don’t plant cotton, there is always peanuts, niébé, or soybeans to make money with, but we don’t do very well with those."

As for the market price of cotton, everyone is asking me if what they hear on the radio is true, that is, that prices are going up. Every farmer is asking the same question. As it turns out many listened to a program last Sunday called "primary products chronicle" on which the program host spoke about rising world prices. The problem is that the program was in the local language Mooré, and the translation didn’t distinguish between seed cotton and fiber cotton, nor between world prices and farmgate prices. In any event the erroneous news spread through the markets, which will only serve to increase disapointment.

Talk to you soon, Camille

16 June 2007

What’s bad for the goose can be good for the gander, as the lack of rain here since June 6 means that cotton growers were easily available for interviews. In fact, most of them have not yet sown their crops. Those who did can only stand by and watch young plants start to shrivel in the drought. All are searching the sky for any hint of rain.
During an informal discussion among several producers, one began to laugh saying "times are so bad we’re about to start eating red sorghum (normally reserved for the production of "dolo, or millet beer). General laughter : "now that’s something that really tastes bad". "Yeah, and some folk don’t even have any sorghum" (more laughter). Fortunately, they can still laugh.

Interviews with producers confirm that the area planted in cotton is shrinking, as expected. If it doesn’t rain soon, cotton crop areas will likely decrease further. Less than half of those I spoke with indicated they would continue to plant cotton ("a little bit") in the future – even if the price continues to fall – because it is the one crop that enables them to earn a little cash. One of the problems is the price of fertilizer. Some of those planting cotton this year are doing so because they bought the fertilizer without knowing its price. If the situation is the same next year, they won’t bother planting. Risk management dictates that first they ensure that there is food on the table. Without fertilizers (too expensive), yields will decrease, and growers will have to increase the amount of land in production.

Delays in crop payments this year (combined in certain areas with an epidemic of meningitis) resulted in a number of producers’ going into debt and having to take out loans. These loans can be from a family member, from the Health Center or, most often, from a shopkeeper or trader. It’s difficult to find out the interest rate practiced because farmer-borrowers hesitate to give out this information (I intend to pursue the question a bit), especially if there are family ties between the borrower and the lender. In any case, when the cotton money came in, it went to paying off these loans. "The money is all done", they say. In the "old days", some of this money could be set aside for use when difficulties arose later on (in particular health problems). Since prices have dropped, such savings are hard to realize, and many find themselves having to sell millet in order to cover the cost of prescription medicine. At first glance it does not appear that lower prices have had an impact on scolarization rates among primary-school-aged children (but I need to do more interviews to be sure). It’s quite a different story, however, among secondary school students, since it is often cotton money that allows a family to send its children to the city to attend middle school. These days, producers do not have the money for tuition fees (much higher than for primary school), much less enough to cover room and board in town.

Talk to you soon, Camille

7 April 2007

Last week I went out three days to the Tapoa region to follow the beginning of the agricultural season (at Diapaga, Partiaga, and Kantchari). "Everything went alright" would be an exaggeration since the information announced to the growers was not good. The latter know already the price of inputs and the farmgate price for cotton, so there weren’t many surprises. Many of them are worried about delays in payments (this being a major preoccupation since most of those who have not been payed have been forced to sell cereal stocks at prices that are "very very lower" than normal.) All the growers are aware that the season will be very difficult but seemed resigned to that fact. And at the same time many have hope, encouraged by the SOCOMA, that tomorrow will be a better day for cotton growers with seasonal-adjustment funds, government negotiations to renew farm aid, etc. and some simply because "things can’t stay this way". Today there is a meeting at Ouagadougou on the issue of farm supports and the VAT on transportation. It remains to be seen whether negotiations will get anywhere. In any case, here everyone is expecting to see a decrease in cotton acreage and, even more so, a drop in yields. (One grower, upon seeing the price of inputs, wondered out loud if the time had not come to stop and reflect upon the lessons contained in such prices.)

As far as my own work is concerned, I’m really tempted to concentrate on the growers and their experience. Although I spend alot of time talking with SOCOMA agents or with the growers’ union officials, I don’t feel that they don’t have the same grasp on the current difficulties as those who are living them.

Talk to you soon, Camille

6 April 2007

Government negotiations have resulted in a renewal of the farm input subsidy program, for a total of some three billion CFA. It remains to be seen how the State plans to finance this sum. The same goes for the cotton companies which also pledged to underwrite input costs, but with what money ? Despite subsidies, production may drop by as much as half. A lot of inputs were returned, and among the members of the various local growers associations (GPC – groupement des producteurs de coton) some are insolvent. Others have suffered disastrous yields.All in all, nearly a third of the GPC run the risk of being disbanded. The factory at Kompienga will not operate this year, and probably not the one at Diapaga either, unless production levels warrant it. Growers’ comments seem to confirm the coming drop in production ; "this year they’re going to think first, we’ll see next year". Those who decide not to plant may be less numerous than it seems now, but most seem resolved to reduce their acreage devoted to cotton. When it comes down to it, they cannot not grow cotton ; "even if cotton was at 100F, we’d still plant".

Today the first real rain fell, as much as 95 mm in Diabo (the region where I am conducting surveys). It remains to be seen whether this is not just "occasional" rain, but it seems as if the prayers of cotton planters have been answered. Everyone’s hoping the growing season is here for real. Let’s hope also that the two latest bits of news (rain and subsidies) prove to be a good omen !

Talk to you soon, Camille

Publié le : 17 octobre 2008

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