By Carolin Averbeck
“This bag is made out of PP”, says Marco Mtunga, an ITC consultant and cotton expert with more than 19 years of experience. We are standing in the middle of a huge storage hall, full of seed cotton. At one end of the hall, there is a metallic pipeline, which works like a gigantic vacuum cleaner. “PP can contaminate cotton,” explains Marco and points to the bag which several young men are using to carry the cotton from a far-end corner of the hall to the pipeline. Other young men are feeding the pipeline with the seed cotton. From here, the cotton is conveyed to the gin – a machine that separates cotton fibers from seeds, hulls, and other foreign materials. These other foreign materials, which contaminate the cotton, are the reason why we are visiting this ginnery and several more in the North-Eastern part of Uganda. We have two cotton experts from Uganda’s Cotton Development Board with us, Fredrick Itungulu and Patrick Ilukat.
Our objective is to assess the level of contamination for each ginnery, to discuss our findings with the managers of the ginnery and advise them on how they can avoid contamination at each step in the production chain. The level of contamination is one of the factors defining the quality of cotton, while the quality affects the price. Contamination forces ginners to sell their lint cotton at discount prices to international merchants. Price differentials for cotton with the same fiber characteristics can rangefrom 5 up to 30 percent. Discounts are usually applied indiscriminately to all cotton originating from an area or a country which is perceived to have contaminated cotton.
Earlier this week, during a one-day training in Kampala, Marco had explained to ginners from about 10 of Uganda’s currently 20 active ginneries why PP, also known as polypropylene, is the most dangerous cotton contaminant, and how it can be avoided in the whole production process.
The training and subsequent visits to ginneries were jointly organized by ITC’s SITA team and Uganda’s Cotton Development Board. They mark the first activity of a joint action plan by ITC and CDO, which aims at branding Ugandan cotton as contamination-free and at achieving premium prices at international markets for Ugandan cotton – to the ultimate benefit of the farmers.
Reducing cotton contamination is one of Uganda’s Cotton Development Board strategic priorities. Before the harvesting season starts, CDO organizes pre-season visits to sensitize ginners, extension officers and farmers on the issue of contamination. We are now sitting in the shade next to the storages of a ginnery in Bukedea district. The manager had mobilized a number of extension officers and agents, and we are discussing the issue of contamination with them. Cotton contamination starts at the farm-level and with the material of the bags the farmers are using to pick the cotton and to transport it to the collection points. “Where I come from, farmers use PP bags,” says one agent. “In the past, we never had such issues. Farmers used their cotton bed sheets to pick the cotton, but nowadays they just reuse the seed bags,” says another. We discuss what needs to be done to change the situation. “Ginners could provide the right bags to the farmers,” suggests someone, who is echoed by others.
Earlier this week, during the training day in Kampala, ginners debated on the important role they have to jointly play to avoid contamination along the whole production chain – from the farm to when the cotton is shipped abroad. Most ginners have already installed different measures in their ginneries to avoid contamination. There is now need to ensure that farmers use the right bags to pick and transport the cotton. Several ginners committed to distribute contamination-free picking bags to the farmers prior to the next picking season. Some highlighted the missing link between ginners and farmers, and the need for ginners to directly sensitize farmers. “At the end of the day, it is the farmers who lose, since discount prices are ultimately transmitted to the farmer level,” said one ginner during the discussion.
Ginners also agreed that only through a joint effort they can fully avoid contamination along the whole production chain and ensure that Uganda has an international reputation for high-quality, contamination-free cotton. During the SITA project, ITC will continue working with CDO and the ginners to further strengthen Uganda’s reputation as premium exporter of cotton. As a very next step, several ginners will have the opportunity to visit Indian ginneries and learn from best practice.