East Africa, in particular Kenya, has traditionally espoused the value of community self-help events for development. In fact, the tradition of coming together— called harambee in Swahili— is Kenya’s official motto. And true to this motto, the cooperative movement has played a key role in the socio-economic development of Kenya. According to a 2009 study by International Labour Organisation, nearly 63 percent of Kenyans earn their livelihood from cooperative enterprise, accounting for 45 percent of the GDP.
Historically, the Kenyan cooperative movement has centred on agricultural co-ops and Saccos, a form of credit union that also serves as a social safety net. While Saccos and other agricultural co-operatives continue to fare well, cotton and handloom co-operatives have a different story to tell.
Until the liberalisation of 1990s, over 90% of cotton ginneries in Kenya were run by cotton co-operatives, through which the members ginned and marketed their cotton. Currently most of the cotton societies are dormant and are under revitalization as farmers have quit cotton cultivation in the face of poor marketing by authorities, inferior seed varieties and lack of affordable credit and market. And, with the opening up of global markets, Kenyan weavers and textile manufacturers further faced increased competition from cheaper imported fabric and second hand clothes. To add to their woes, the high costs of cotton, conventional loom technology and lack of standardisation in the market often made their products uncompetitive.
It is in this backdrop that the Kenyan government, recognising the potential of Cotton and Textiles to drive growth and generate employment, identified cotton textiles as top priority in the ‘Roadmap to Kenya’s Industrialization – 2030.’ This essentially meant reviving the country’s ailing cotton cooperatives. While the Kenyan State Department for Cooperatives (SDC) is currently working on it, coinciding with its efforts was ITC’s Supporting Indian Trade and Investment for Africa (SITA). SITA aims to strengthen East Africa’s Cotton Textile and Apparel sector, including handlooms, through facilitating knowledge and technology transfer from India – a country with strong tradition in handloom and professional handloom weavers’ clusters.
‘SITA has for the first time brought together all stakeholders in the Cotton, Textile and Apparel (CTA) value chain, including handlooms. It will help in reviving and strengthening our cooperatives,’ commented Samuel Kamura Kuria, SDC, Ministry of Industry, Trade and Co-operatives. And, “SITA has come at the right time to bridge the gap with respect to the integration of handloom value chain. Handloom was so far left out in the CTA value chain, but presents much potential in creating employment in the cooperative sector,” added Lawrence M. Ngari, County Industrial & Enterprise Development Officer, SDC.
Commenting on the significance of the co-operative business model as a reliable and sustainable business model for the development of cotton, textiles and handlooms, Rose M. Mwathi, Chairperson of the Handloom Weavers Marketing Co-operative Society (WEAMACO) and Director of Weavers Worth Enterprise, Kenya, said, ‘It is always better to work together, helping one another in addressing the challenges, especially in a difficult business environment.’
Currently, the Kenyan handloom sector is plagued by multiple challenges, the high cost of imported yarn being the most critical one, Ms. Mwathi observed.
Mr. Kuria, Mr. Ngari and Ms. Mwathi were in India as the part of a Kenyan delegation on a 6- day long exposure visit organised by the International Trade Centre (ITC) through the SITA project. In addition to policies, available technologies and good practices in the Indian handloom sector, the participants were also introduced to the design and structure for establishment and management of producer-owned institutions as well as social enterprises for the handloom value chain.
WEAMACO has nearly 15 active member organisations, each engaged in the production of 100% handloom kikois, table mats and runners, table cloths, bed covers, hand-woven hammocks and hand-spun rugs. “Weavers Worth – my private enterprise– presently imports yarn from Uganda at very high prices and sell to the WEAMACO member organisations and local weavers. While we can build the capacity to meet export demands, we do not have the necessary market linkages and also lack access to global market information, specifically product design and pricing,” Ms. Mwathi said.
Weaver co-operatives need much support to successfully market their produce internationally. While SITA can support the co-operatives to present their challenges to the government and help in policy advocacy to create favourable business environment, setting up an AIACA (All India Artisans and Craftworker’s Welfare Association) model agency to represent weavers at the government level can help in strengthening the cooperatives, she said. Government support measures such as VAT-free pricing of yarn, establishing a one-stop workshop for training weavers can help handloom co-operatives in a big way, she noted.
‘Upgrading weaving technology with better machines and upscaling production; capacity building, including in jacquard looms; exploring the possibly of e-marketing as well as establishing a SEWA-model showroom that we saw at Rajiv Gandhi Handicrafts Bhawan are key learnings from the visit,” Ms. Mwathi remarked.
“With support from SITA and our government, we will work towards achieving this, while we will also reorganise and strengthen the co-operative. I will particularly focus on organising weavers in the high end market. Weaving is serious, profitable business. I can now convince them with photographs from Indian counterparts and inspire to get more involved in the activities,’ she added.
‘Truly, it is a wonderful opportunity for development and employment,’ says Pauline Kagerah Abok, who was also part of the Kenyan delegation. Ms. Kagerah Abok, Chairlady of Kanyadhiang Awach Handicraft Co-op Society, Kenya, has been working as a teacher before she joined the co-operative in 2015. ‘I am a new member, and I see that there is a lot to improve based on learnings from the visit,’ she observed.
Established in the 1980s, Kanyadhiang Society has 65 members, mostly old members doing conventional weaving and spinning, making kikois, scarves, carpets, bed spreads and also baskets from acrylic as well as palm leaves. ‘As we look to add new young members, we would want to add newer products. That would mean training in both new and old products,’ Ms. Kagerah Abok said. ‘We are presently challenged by the high price of yarn, imported from Uganda, obsolete technology and lack of modernisation. Immediately, we may look for a government grant for the repair and maintenance of the available machines and buy modern machines at a later stage.’
‘As I look forward, I would want to introduce many changes to strengthen the Society, but will do that in stages, with guidance and support from SITA and the Kenyan government,’ Ms. Kagerah Abok said, looking confidently toward a promising future.