Egypt looks to restore cotton to its rightful place

October 29, 2017
Missed targets. A factory employee works at a cotton spinning factory on the outskirts of Cairo. (Reuters)

Cairo - Egypt has launched a plan to revitalise its once-vaunted cotton industry, increasing production and ensuring a better quality to restore the reputation of Egyptian cotton.
The Egyptian Ministry of Agri­culture said the initiative would see an increase of cotton cultiva­tion to satisfy the requirements of local textile factories and ensure a surplus for exports. The aim is to double production to 70 mil­lion kilograms over the next fiscal year.
“The plan also seeks to refine the quality of the cotton with the final goal of bringing it back to its old high quality,” said Hamed Abdel-Dayem, the Agriculture Ministry spokesman. “In a matter of a few decades, our cotton went from the very top to the very bot­tom because of deteriorating qual­ity.”
Egyptian cotton had been a by­word for luxury and extravagance for centuries. Because of its long fibres, Egyptian cotton was used to create very fine thread and yarn, without sacrificing strength. This meant that Egyptian cotton — mostly used in luxury bedding — was softer and stronger than other cottons.
Cotton has historically been one of Egypt’s biggest export crops, bringing in huge revenues and monopolising the country’s agriculture. In the 1950s, about 800,000 hectares of farmland — nearly 50% of the total in the country — was under cotton cul­tivation. The amount and the quality of the cotton led to the establishment of sprawling textile factories throughout Egypt.
However, because of competi­tion from abroad and domestic neglect, Egypt’s cotton industry suffered a massive decline. Gamal Seyam, a professor of agricultural economics at Cairo University, said the biggest cause for the set­back was the lack of a strategic vision from authorities. That left farmers to market their produce themselves.
“Most farmers failed to sell their crops, which caused them to lose money,” Seyam said.
At the same time, Cairo sought to increase fruit and vegetable production. The importation of cheap, low-quality cotton hurt home-grown production and harmed the commercial reputa­tion of Egyptian cotton abroad.
Egypt grew cotton on about 50,000 hectares last year. That would be increased to 200,000 hectares over the next year.
“We actually want to raise this space to [600,000 hectares] in a few years. This is not only about the amount of cotton we want to produce but also about its qual­ity,” Abdel-Dayem said.
To increase the quantity and quality of cotton produced, the Agriculture Ministry plans several measures, including hammering out deals with local textile facto­ries to commit to buying locally produced cotton. The ministry will also offer farmers financial in­centives to grow cotton and meet government targets.
The plan includes a move to protect the high-quality, long-fi­bred Egyptian cotton from cross-contamination with other cotton strains.
The plan is only expected to bear fruit after a period of years but, if successful, could see Egyp­tian cotton return to the interna­tional market in force and launch a textile manufacturing boom in the country.
Given the complex and long-term nature of the plan, the gov­ernment faces several challenges, including ensuring commitment from local textile factories and cotton traders to purchase the ex­pected surplus.
“Together with fair cotton pric­ing, this policy will make the pain the farmers sustain in growing the cotton worth it,” said MP Hesham al-Hosari, the deputy head of par­liament’s Agriculture Committee. “The farmers will quickly scrap cotton growing for other easier-to-market crops if the government fails to secure purchase deals for their cotton.”