In conversation with CmiA: Cotton made in Africa

17th September 2014     Fabrics Future Fabrics Expo The Sustainable Angle Sourcing Interview

written by Charlotte Turner

Over the years we have researched thousands of sustainable textiles sourced from dozens, even hundreds of mills from around the world. However we have not until now had the opportunity to really showcase what Africa has to offer, something which is essential if we want to show what African industry is capable of, especially if it receives investment and support from the industry.

The House of Lords recently hosted a roundtable event to discuss sourcing African-Made goods, which highlighted the fact that profit to Africa is decreasing, whilst value added abroad is increasing, even though in the last decade a number of the fastest growing markets have been in Africa. This imbalance coupled with volatile cotton prices is something that the Aid by Trade Foundation (AbTF) aims to address with its Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) initiative, working with small holder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa to improve social, economic and ecological living conditions.

CmiA and a range of CmiA fabrics will be included in the 4th Future Fabrics Expo (28th-30th September, London), but before then we wanted to share with you everything you should know about Cotton made in Africa.

TSA: What was the motivation behind initiating CmiA?
CmiA: Cotton plays a key role in fighting poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and contributes to food security in many countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. So far, this potential has often been underused to further economic development. Volatile cotton prices and low productivity leave African smallholder farmers struggling to make a living from cotton production. Against this background, the Aid by Trade Foundation (AbTF) and its Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) initiative have been initiated. Since 2005, we have improved the living conditions of cotton farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa by activating market forces and creating a quality label for sustainably produced African cotton.

TSA: What are CmiA’s goals?
CmiA: The goal of CmiA is to improve the social, economic and ecological living conditions of smallholder cotton farmers and their families in Sub-Saharan Africa. Our commitment is not based on donations, but rather, on the principle of helping people to help themselves through trade: African smallholders learn about efficient and environmentally friendly cotton cultivation methods through agricultural training provided by our experts. At the same time, we establish an international alliance of textile companies which purchase the CmiA raw material and pay a licensing fee to use the label. Income from licensing fees, are reinvested in the project regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. At the end, CmiA farmers and their families profit from these investments. The underlying philosophy is already reflected in the name of the Foundation – “Aid by Trade”. Additionally, Cotton made in Africa’s purpose is to give African cotton the recognition it deserves in international trade and to lend a positive, recognizable “face” to a hitherto anonymous mass product.

TSA: Can you tell us more about the cotton industry in Africa?
CmiA: Almost 10% of the world’s cotton production is grown and harvested in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is the fifth largest cotton exporter worldwide. Following the USA, India, Australia and Brazil around 2.2million smallholder farmers in West and South-East Africa cultivate cotton. Often it is grown on small lots and in rotation with staple foods, such as grain, corn and peanuts, within the context of very diversified production systems. Although cotton is one major cash income, 80% of the African cotton farmers have an income per day of less than 1.5USD. By means of CmiA, the Aid by Trade Foundation tries to support cotton farmers. The initiative strengthens their resilience towards external effects like volatile prices and increasingly adverse climate changes that keep them from improving their living conditions and that of future generations ensure their food supply and preserve their health as well as the environment.

TSA: Can you give some examples of the effect CmiA has on farmers, the environment, and local economies?
CmiA: Since 2005, CmiA has created a large impact on cotton farmer’s lives and that of their families because the focus of our work are the people in the growing countries in Africa. As an inclusive standard relying on a constant improvement plan for participating farmers, the initiative has become a major player in the cotton sector across Sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas CmiA started with 150,000 in three African countries in 2007, the initiative expanded its work to up to now more than 415,000 smallholders in six Sub Saharan African countries. Family members included more than three million people profit from CmiA. Due to training in efficient and modern cultivation methods CmiA farmers have been enabled to increase their crop yields compared to a control group that is not part of the initiative by an average of 23% and thus to also improve their income. By working with CmiA, the employees in the ginneries benefit from fair contracts and prompt payment. Through community projects, CmiA improves the educational infrastructure in the project regions, ensures a better drinking water supply and strengthens the rights of women. These projects that go beyond pure cotton cultivation strengthen the local community and contribute directly to improving the living conditions of African cotton farmers and their families. Additionally, CmiA has a proven significantly better environmental footprint than conventionally grown cotton. As CmiA cotton is exclusively grown under rain-fed conditions, it thereby saves around 1,500 litres of water translated to the amount of cotton required to make a t-shirt. During the cultivation of the raw material, conventionally grown cotton produces 2.4 times more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of cotton fibre than CmiA.

TSA: What are your plans moving forward?
CmiA: Our plan moving forward it to expand the positive effects of CmiA on the cotton industry to the textile industry on the African continent. We aim to use our experiences to support the establishment of a sustainable textile value chain in Africa. As major international textile retailers increasingly look to diversify their sourcing, we see many opportunities for Africa’s textile to capture parts of these markets. CmiA together with its partners are therefore pro-actively promoting the concept of “Textiles made in Africa” produced for African markets as well as for export.

TSA: How do you think initiatives like the Future Fabrics Expo can help organizations such as yours?
CmiA: For us, the Future Fabrics Expo is very important as it offers the chance to create awareness for our CmiA quality label on the UK market. Thanks to the expo, we can directly interact with companies and other members of the textile value chain who are searching for an optimal solution for ecological and ethical challenges within the textile value chain. Why? We are the first initiative that made it possible to introduce sustainable cotton into the mass market and thereby create a win-win situation for every participant – from cotton farmers to textile companies and consumers worldwide. Cotton farmers and their families profit from license fees retailers pay for purchasing CmiA cotton as we re-invest the income from license fees in the project regions. Partnering textile companies obtain cotton produced under socially and environmentally improved conditions without having to pay a significantly higher price. They can thus achieve their sustainability as well as accountability goals. Consumers can directly support African smallholder farmers and their families by purchasing CmiA labelled products. With every purchase, they make a valuable contribution to Africa’s long-term future.

TSA: How can industry professionals and consumers get involved and engage with the work you are doing?
CmiA: Industry professionals and consumers can get involved in various ways: You can register for our CmiA newsletter to stay informed about our work or follow us on Youtube, Facebook or Twitter. In addition, you have the chance to support our work by purchasing CmiA labelled products. Finally yet importantly, interested companies or traders can make a valuable contribution to the future of hundreds of thousands of people in Africa by becoming partner of our initiative and purchasing the CmiA verified cotton.

You can see a range of CmiA fabrics and find out more at the Future Fabrics Expo, 28th – 30th September, London.