Pilot projects using Bt cotton are underway to facilitate its adoption

A worker at the Thika Cloth Mills Ltd. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • A cotton revival initiative in May 2017 noted that Kenya is doing poorly in the crop’s production because the country does not have quality and sufficient inputs such poor good seeds which produce crops that are less susceptible to pests and diseases.
  • But Bt technology and other plant-breeding techniques can produce better seeds.
  • Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a beneficial bacteria that occurs naturally in the soil and has been used commercially in biochemical insecticides for more than 30 years to control vegetable caterpillars.

It is just past noon and the machines and hum monotonously as the workers keep a keen eye on them. We are inside the Thika Cloth Mills Ltd, which was established in 1958, and was one of the country’s major textile producers.

However, the factory is now a pale shadow of what it was in the mid-1980s, when the local cotton and textile industry were flourishing.

Mr John Nzau, a senior industrial relations officer at the factory, recalls with nostalgia the mid-1980s, when a busy railway line passing through the factory’s premises would bring in raw material from as far away as Homa Bay and Busia in western Kenya. Sometimes a consignment was enough to last the factory more than six months.

“Today, that remains a sheer memory of the good old days. Cotton farming in the country declined. The train that used to bring in the raw cotton stopped years ago, and the railway line became overgrown with shrubbery,” says Mr Nzau.

He says that cotton farmers, most of whom were from the coast, eastern, north-eastern, Rift Valley and western parts of the country, lost interest in the crop when invasions by pests and diseases made it expensive to grow. Besides, the local ready market declined as imported textiles flooded the country.


In the late 1980s, the production of the crop had all but ceased, with no prospects of revival in the foreseeable future.

Mr Nzau says that Thika Cloth Mills Ltd is operating at less than 60 per cent of its capacity, although it imports most of its raw material from other East African countries.

“Without the imports, we would be operating at less than 50 per cent of the factory’s potential, and this is detrimental, not just to the textile industry, but also to cotton farmers, the country’s economy, people’s livelihoods and the manufacturing, which is one of the main pillars of the ‘Big Four’ agenda” he says.

This shortage of raw materials is replicated, albeit with variations, in other textile factories and ginneries across the country, from the once-famous Rivatex in Eldoret and Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi), to smaller ones around the country.

The country is not producing enough cotton to sustain its textile industry and the cotton sector, Nzau says.

Mr Daniel Macondo, a cotton farmer and also the Chairperson of the Society for Biotech Farmers of Kenya (Sobifak), attributes the crop’s decline to a combination of factors.

First, he says was the lack of a local market for the finished products, since imported textiles started replacing locally produced ones. Besides, the export processing zones (EPZ) source their raw material from other countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

He notes that other problems include inadequate quality cotton seed, the high cost of inputs, poor management of pests and diseases, inefficient marketing channels, cheap imports, including cotton lint, dependence on rain-fed cotton and poor management.

However, a shortage of raw material, pests, diseases and marketing, were the main challenges.

At the Thika Cloth Mills, for instance, volumes of ready fabric gather dust in the firm’s warehouses due to lack of a market, while at the same time raw material is hard to come by.

“The irony of the shortage of raw material for producing textile and lack of markets to sell the produced fabric both occurring at the same time is because of the importation of both raw material and inexpensive textile products. This hinders the sale of adequate fabrics made by the country’s cotton industry. The inexpensive imports stifle the cotton industry’s ability to acquire enough raw material from within the country,” he offers.


The answer to the country’s shortage of raw cotton production lies in Bt technology, experts say.

There is a lot of research in technology in relation to a host of other crops such as maize to address the issues of climate change-induced food insecurity, but it is more refined and advanced in cotton currently.

A cotton revival initiative in May 2017 noted that Kenya is doing poorly in the crop’s production because the country does not have quality and sufficient inputs such poor good seeds which produce crops that are less susceptible to pests and diseases.

But Bt technology and other plant-breeding techniques can produce better seeds, Mr Magondu says.

Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a beneficial bacteria that occurs naturally in the soil and has been used commercially in biochemical insecticides for more than 30 years to control vegetable caterpillars, says Dr Charles Waturu, the director of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation’s (Kalro) Horticulture Research Institute in Thika.

“Thus Bt cotton is any variety of cotton genetically enhanced with the Bt-genes to protect it against caterpillar pests, especially the most destructive pest in cotton crops, the African bollworm,” says Dr Waturu, who is an expert in the technology.

He says that a gene in Bt, responsible for the production of a protein which is harmful to caterpillar pests such as the African bollworm, is incorporated in the cotton plant, making it develop self-protection mechanisms by reproducing and regenerating the protein.

This process does not change the plant’s characteristics in any way; it only enhances the plant’s ability to protect itself from pests. These formulations are made stronger and effective when genetically engineered into the cotton plants, Dr Waturu says.

When cotton seeds produced in this manner are used, they reduce the number of times the crops should be sprayed from 12 to three per season, thereby reducing the cost of production.


The technology also increases the populations of natural pest enemies such as ladybirds, bees, wasps and ants, allowing them, together with other beneficial insects like butterflies, to flourish.

Environmental pollution by insecticides, as well as the exposure of   humans, and animals to the toxic chemicals in pesticides are also controlled, says Dr Roy Mugiira, the technical services director at the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI).

Dr Waturu further points out that returns from Bt-cotton in countries which have adopted the technology have been immense.

India for instance, improved farm income from Bt-cotton by Sh2trillion in the 13-year period from 2002 to 2015, and to Sh131billion in 2015 alone.

China raised its farm income from Bt-cotton by Sh1.9trillion between 1997 and 2015, and to Sh100billion in 2015 alone.

In Argentina, Bt-cotton accounted for revenue of up to 313billion, of which 95 per cent went to farmers while five per cent was distributed between seeds and herbicide suppliers.

And in Myanmar, the benefits were estimated at Sh31billion for the period between 2006 and 2015 and Sh5bn for 2015 alone.

Dr Richard Oduor, a crop biotechnologist and senior lecturer at Kenyatta University, points out that while the government is keen on developing biotechnology in the country, its implementation has been quite slow.

The government’s interest in research, he says, is evident in its involvement, funding and facilitation of projects in institutions such as Kenyatta University, the University of Nairobi, Kalro, the National Biosafety Authority, NACOSTI, the ministries of Industry and Agriculture, and the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), among others.

“We have in the past trained experts from outside the country on biotechnology; some have gone back home to develop the same in their countries,” says Dr Oduor.

He notes that Sudan, for instance, which embraced the technology less than 10 years ago, now has more than 120,000 acres under Bt cotton from its initial 20,000 acres in 2012, compared with Kenya’s paltry 30,000 acres of conventional cotton.

The implementation of the biotechnology research outcomes is a little restrained due to official considerations and the need for public involvement first, according to the experts.


Dr Oduor also notes that while there have been misconceptions about biotechnology, there have never been any documented cases of its adverse effects on humans, animals and the environment. 

The misapprehensions on the subject are usually  a result of insufficient awareness of genetically-modified crops, lack of  exposure, lack of target research information materials, missing links between farmers and scientists and researchers, and misreporting by the media, with some sensationalising agri-biotechnology, portraying it as outlandish and scary, to elicit public fear of the crops, according to the experts.

“Limited access to accurate and balanced information on biotechnology has resulted in fictitious, distorted, sensational information disseminated to the public, and this has largely contributed to the public’s reluctance to adopt the crops, views that ought to be demystified.

Besides, Bt is a naturally occurring microorganism in the soil, and the process of genetic engineering and biotechnology began when humans started to plant their own crops, domesticate animals, ferment juice into wine, make cheese, and leaven bread,” Dr Oduor says, adding   that the concept has always been among humans.

Conventional cotton, which is the only one cultivated in the country, is prone to attacks by pests such as aphids, red spider mites, cotton stainers, and the different species of African bollworms, which are by far the most devastating to the crop compared to the others, but can be effectively restrained using Bt cotton.

“India, with its 11.6million acres under Bt-cotton, Pakistan with 2.9million acres and Myanmar with 325,000 acres, among others, now have a more thriving textile sector, compared to Kenya’s because of this technology” Dr Waturu notes.


Things Looking Up For The Industry


There is good news for the cotton and textile sector, however.

An ongoing programme by Kalro and other institutions is conducting national performance trials (NPTs) for Bt-cotton in nine sites across the country to facilitate its adoption.

Mwea, Katumani, Bura, Kampi ya Mawe, Perkerra, Kibos, Barwesa, Matuga and Alupe in  have been identified for these  trials, and through Nema’s environmental impact assessment, the public recently participated by offering views on the project, Ms Margaret Njuki, Nema’s chief compliance officer, said.

“If the public’s opinions are affirmative, Nema will issue a licence for Kalro to run the programmes,” Ms Njuki said, during a recent forum for sensitising the youth to biotechnology.  She noted that a final verdict from Nema experts, with the consideration of the public’s input, will determine the success of the project and hence the introduction of Bt-cotton farming in the country.

The Ministry of Agriculture, in conjunction with seed companies such as Monsanto and Mahyco, is also working on Bt-cotton seed multiplication in anticipation of the programme.

The official launch of the Bt-cotton planting is planned for November this year since demos are going on in cotton-growing regions.

The experts say that farmers need not worry since markets for cotton are assured, given the government’s pledge to buy the produce, with the expected reopening of textile industries such as Rivatex, among others.

Currently Kenya’s cotton production averages 572 kilogrammes per hectare, compared to an achievable 2,500 kilogrammes per hectare.

The country has the potential to produce 260,000 cotton bales annually but currently produces only 28,000 bales, a deficit that can be filled if better technology were adopted.

The potential available land for cotton cultivation is over 400,000 hectares, but only about 29,000 hectares are currently used.

There are currently about 39,000 cotton farmers in the country while the sector can support over 200,000 farmers.

The industry has the potential to generate more than Sh15 billion annually, with about 69 per cent of this revenue remaining with the farmers.

The African Bollworm can cause 100 percent yield losses within days if it remains unchecked and attacks nearly all parts of the plan