How do you revitalise a declining industry in a poor country during a time of falling commodity prices and global slowdown?
François Traoré, a cotton farmer from Burkina Faso, says it is not easy.
“In Africa, cotton producers are mainly illiterate,” says Mr Traoré, chairman of a 13-member regional body called AProCA (L’Association des Producteurs de Coton Africains). Despite their disadvantages, the cotton producers have to compete on global terms.
“They must have some idea about marketing. They must also know the quality required by the consumer.”
Producers place faith in
Although farmers in western Africa face better-funded rivals in other countries, leaders such as François Traoré give hope to everybody.
Equipped with nothing more than a high school education, the 57-year-old Burkinabe is trying to bring about a resurgence in an industry that has declined in his lifetime.
Mr Traoré left school at 15 and went into mainly subsistence farming to feed his family. In 1979, he began farming cotton and selling it to local cotton companies. He now owns a 100-hectare farm in Solenzo, near the border with Mali.
Mr Traoré started considering the problems of the cotton industry seven years ago.
“The cotton price has been falling since 2002. We are facing a crisis.
“We need to understand how ... world cotton production is increasing, while in Africa this was not the situation.”
In 2004 he set up AProCA, the Association des Producteurs de Coton Africains. It has 13 members: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Chad, Togo and the Central African Republic.
AProCA has looked at the sort of training that the industry needs.
“Producers need to know how cotton is selling at the international level and they must also know the consumers’ needs,” says Mr Traoré. “They must understand how cotton companies are managed. Africa must have technicians with a high level of knowledge to increase productivity. From this need came the idea of the University of Cotton.”
About 350,000 people in Burkina Faso, a country of 15.7m, farm the crop that is the west African country’s largest export. The livelihoods of 20m people regionally depend on cotton.
However, in the face of falling global cotton prices, US government subsidies and a move away from cotton towards other cash crops, Mr Traoré and his regional counterparts need to teach their farmers more than just cotton farming. They need to make them commercially minded, able to think about marketing and all aspects of their crop once it leaves the farm.
To make things harder, the regional industry also battles against a historical legacy – the inefficient, now-privatised remnants of former colonial agricultural companies.
In order to tackle the problem, last year Mr Traoré approached HEC school of management in Paris, France, following a referral by Farm, a Paris-based foundation that supports agriculture in the developing world.
Mr Traoré met Daniel Genton, an agronomist and HEC professor, and asked for help in teaching his regional farmers skills such as strategy and marketing.
“Listening to [Mr Traoré], it reminded me of co-operatives set up in France in the mid-19th century to counterbalance the global market in cereals, in oilseed,” Prof Genton says.
He likens the cotton farmers in west Africa to farmers in the Champagne region after the 1870-1 Franco-Prussian war. They combined forces to buy agricultural inputs and invest in training. They ultimately became a powerful co-operative, La Providence Agricole, now Champagne Céréale.
It was the history of this group of French farmers that formed a crucial part of the five-day custom programme Prof Genton led last year for about 40 cotton producers from 13 countries.
Rather than lecturing the programme participants, mostly farmers aged between 45 and 50, the Cotton University, as it is called, asked them to solve the problems of a historical situation similar to their own.
“I came back with a project saying, ‘We will do something quite different. We will submit a problem to you’,” says Prof Genton.
“The problem was the problems French farmers had with cereals and oilseed, etc.
“We had a totally reverse learning. We considered [the west African farmers] as consultants. We were asking them questions; they came back to us with an answer and we did a lot of theory about strategy, etc,” adds Prof Genton.
Victoria Adongo, a programme co-ordinator with the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana, a lobby group representing farming associations, took part in the Cotton University programme. She says the historical exercise they were given was not unusual.
“A few years ago, farming was one of the best things someone could live on. It was quite lucrative. The whole industry is shrinking. All of a sudden, farming is not lucrative any more, not attractive any more,” says Ms Adongo.
“It’s difficult for people who have been born farmers and that is all they know [how] to do. The only way they can cope is to compare the present with the past. What happened when our fathers were farming?”
For members of an industry historically subject to a high level of government control, the course gave participants a new way of looking at things, Mr Traoré says.
The farmers developed more confidence he adds and returned from the course better equipped to engage their own authorities on issues that affect their industry and ask for change.
“The main challenges are to increase the productivity and to take back the management of cotton companies, to take back the marketing of cotton and to increase the income of producers,” he says.
“The programme is a success.”
The HEC programme, which also used recent examples such as the formation of the New Zealand dairy board and discussed concepts such as business models, business organisation and leadership, was first held in Bobo-Dioulasso, a town in the heart of Burkina Faso’s cotton region. A follow-up took place in Ségou, Mali, in January this year. The cost of the programme – €325,000 ($453,000, £284,000) for two sessions, planning and expenses – was covered by Farm, HEC and two donors.
Another course is planned for later this year and additional funding is being sought from the European Union.
Turning round an industry in decline is not a quick task. Prof Genton says the Cotton University will be needed for “at least” 10 to 15 years.
But there are already signs of a crucial change in attitude among local cotton farmers. Ms Adongo, who participated with the head of Ghana’s cotton producers’ body and another farmer, says both men had a change of heart following the programme.
“They were thinking about reducing their cotton farms ... but, after the Cotton University, they changed their minds.
“The other farmers, we have been trying to convince them. Many of them reduced their cotton farms and went into food crop farming. We are now trying to convince them to continue with their cotton,” she says.