Kenya is a country with a rich history of agriculture, and cotton farming was an integral part of its agricultural heritage. Before independence, Kenya relied heavily on imports of textiles from the United Kingdom, India, and Uganda. However, the independent government of Kenya saw the need to develop its own cotton industry, which would not only be self-sufficient but would also create jobs and boost the country’s economy.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the first threat to the cotton industry in Kenya was the advent of synthetic fabrics from Japan. Despite this challenge, the government continued to support the development of the cotton industry and established textile industries in Thika, Eldoret, and Kisumu. The Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC) funded cotton growing, while the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC) funded the textile industry in partnership with private investors. The government also introduced interventions to discourage imports, which helped to establish a strong foundation for the cotton and textile industry in Kenya.
However, in the early 1990s, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) prompted economic structural reforms in Kenya, which allowed the uncontrolled importation of new and old clothes. This led to a decline in the cotton industry, as the market became saturated with imported clothing. As a result, cotton farming and the supporting industrial infrastructure in Kenya faced significant challenges.
Today, only two textile industries remain in Eldoret and Thika, operating at under-capacity. The survival of these industries is largely due to the use of limited quantities of locally grown cotton, which is supplemented with cotton imports from Tanzania. The government, led by William Ruto, has plans to multiply economic opportunities and jobs in agricultural value chains, including agro-industries and cotton, to revive the industry.
A recent study conducted in 2020 indicated that several counties in Kenya, such as Busia, Kitui, Kwale, Homa Bay, and Lamu, are ready with plans to increase cotton production. The introduction of Bt/GMO cotton seeds in some of these counties has been successful, and there are strong recommendations for the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) to develop high-impact Kenyan seed varieties to eventually reduce reliance on unsustainable imports.
To revive the textile industry in Kenya, a roadmap needs to be developed. This should involve scaling up the existing cotton production in various counties, as well as allocating resources to increase cotton crop production and reorganizing farmers’ co-ops. The Departments of Trade, Agriculture, and Co-operatives, as well as the counties, need to work together to modernize ginneries and attract investors to participate in textile milling capacity expansion. This way, the promised economic impacts, such as the creation of agricultural and industrial jobs, import substitution, and exports, can be delivered.
Cotton fabrics have a large niche market in Kenya, which is currently unfulfilled. As a result, there is no immediate need to interfere with the import of second-hand clothes, which satisfies a different market segment. Kenya should also target exports of surplus cotton lint and fabrics to generate foreign exchange. Other by-products from ginneries, such as oil and cotton-seed cake, are also in high demand, particularly for animal feed formulation.
In conclusion, the revival of the textile industry in Kenya is critical for the country’s economic growth and job creation. The government and other stakeholders need to work together to modernize ginneries, increase cotton production, and attract investors to participate in textile milling capacity expansion. This way, Kenya can once again become a major player in the textile industry and contribute to the country’s economic development.