In 2022, President Uhuru Kenyatta will complete his second and last term of office as one of the few leaders in East Africa that have mastered the art of aggressive regional and international trade.
In 2016, after the leaders of Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda under the East African Community framework agreed to stop importing second hand clothes from the United States by 2019 in order to protect their textile and leather industries, Kenyatta embarked on a long journey to revive the textiles industry as a core area to dominate regional trade.
The textile industry became part of Kenyatta’s the Big Four Agenda, a government’s action plan aimed at accelerating the country’s economic growth.
The Kenya government’s “Big 4” agenda identified the cotton, textile and apparel value chain as a priority manufacturing sector economic driver projected to contribute eight to 15 percent to the Gross Domestic Product.
Kenya’s textile industry declined in 1980 after market liberalization policies demanded by multilateral lenders exposed the market to second-hand imports.
According to Mr Kenyatta’s government, reviving the cotton industry would see an increase in production from 5,500 tons to 50,000 tons in the next five years and create 680,000 direct jobs through cotton farming, 210 jobs at ginning level, 6,000 at integrated mills and 25,000 at garments manufacturing.
The revitalization would further create an import substitution of $11.87 million and enhance self-sufficiency of lint. Lint exports would fetch Kenya $86 million in foreign exchange.
Having realized that banning second-hand clothes would create a vacuum in the textiles industry, in 2017 the Kenyan government formed a cotton taskforce and mandated it to implement an ambitious roadmap for the introduction of Bt cotton and high-yielding hybrids between 2017-2022.
Kenyan scientists had genetically engineered Bt Cotton using the Biosafety Act of 2008 that had been crafted by the Mwai Kibaki government.
Initially, the Kibaki government backtracked on use of biotechnology and decided to ban GMO imports in 2012, after a study found that GMO maize caused cancer in rats. The study was later discredited, and pulled from the scientific journal that had published it.
Although the ban remains intact Kenyatta continues to fund research on biotechnology through the National Council for Science and Technology with particular focus on Bt cotton and Bt maize.
Bt cotton is genetically modified to be high yielding and resistant to the destructive African boll worm which has made cotton production very costly and less profitable for most African countries including Uganda, formerly the biggest producer of organic cotton.
One stem of Bt cotton produces 40 bolls while conventional varieties produce 15 to 20 bolls.
As Kenya embarked on GM cotton, in neighbouring Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni was dilly dallying on whether to sign or reject a law passed by his parliament on genetically modified organism (GMOs) even though he was fully aware that his scientists had succeeded in engineering GM bananas that were resistant to black Sigatoka and banana bacterial wilt diseases; engineered maize against drought (Bt maize); cassava against mosaic virus and brown streak virus and Irish potatoes against the late blight disease.
It is estimated that annually Uganda loses $35-200m (bananas), $60-80m (cassava), $10m (cotton) and $8m (coffee) to crop diseases.
Nevertheless, in 2017, Mr Museveni returned the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2017 to parliament unsigned arguing that the use of the GMO crops would contaminate the indigenous ones which Ugandan farmers had developed for years.
Unfortunately for him he was unaware that his colleague, Kenyatta, had embraced a similar law and was using it to revamp the Kenya textiles industry and outcompete Uganda that prides in producing organic cotton.
In a letter addressed to the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, in December, 2017, Museveni insisted on a change in the Bill’s title, provisions on patent rights on indigenous farming products, and sanctions for scientists who mix GMOs with indigenous crops and animals.
“This law apparently talks of giving monopoly of patent rights to its adder and forgets about the communities that developed original material. This is wrong,” Museveni said.
“To be on the safe side, GMO seeds should never be randomly mixed with our indigenous seeds just in case they turn out to have a problem,” he added.
But Prof. Dorington Ogoyi, Managing Director of Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority says GMOs can co-exist with conventional crops.
The Ugandan law passed by lawmakers in October 2017 provided a regulatory framework that would facilitate the safe development and application of biotechnology, research, development and release of GMOs.
It also established institutions that would regulate and promote the usage of biotechnology in a bid to modernize agriculture and environmental protection, as well as enhance public health and industrialization.
Unlike Mr Museveni President Kenyatta carefully listened to Kenyan scientists and approved the commercial cultivation of Bt cotton in 2018 in an effort to revive the cotton industry, boost textile and apparel manufacturing that would increase Kenya’s GDP from the 9.5 percent to 15 percent by 2022.
In 2020, Kenyan government identified 1,000 farmers to receive the country’s first genetically modified cotton seeds. Farmers growing it on demonstration plots observed a high germination rate, early maturation and resistance to common pests, especially the troublesome African bollworm.
By November 2020 after an impressive performance of Bt cotton on some Kenyan farms government permitted full commercialization of the crop.
Kenyan government rolled out commercial production of Bt cotton with a target to produce 200,000 bales by 2022 to join the big textile league.
This target had earlier been met by Uganda.
Statistics from Uganda’s Cotton Development Organisation indicate that in the 2004/05 crop, 220,000 bales of cotton lint worth $37 million were exported.
But ever since Uganda started exporting apparel to the United States under the African Growth and Opportunities Act (Agoa), the country has not exported a stitch of locally-produced fabric and AGOA has stimulated little growth in the cotton sector.
However, in 2017 under Agoa, Kenya sold about ksh40 billion worth of textiles and clothing to the US, while Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania sold a cumulative ksh4.3 billion.
Yet East Africa could potentially export garments valued at as much as $3bn annually by 2025, according to 2015 McKinsey report.
The apparel market in the United States is the largest in the world with a market value of $343 billion.
Kenyatta also started trade negotiations with President Donald Trump for a bilateral free trade area agreement before the latter signed out of office last year, which would give Kenyan textiles duty-free market access.
Kenyatta further negotiated an aviation deal with the US to enable the Kenya Airways start non-stop flights from Nairobi to New York to help with transportation of the textiles.
Kenya Airways is the first airline to offer a non-stop flight between East Africa and the United States of America.
Despite Kenya’s aggressive plans to revive her textiles industry Uganda’s plans largely remained on paper even though the latter used to a textiles giant in East Africa.
In 2019, Uganda introduced a strategy for its cotton, textiles and apparels sector that could generate 50,000 new jobs and $650 million in additional export revenues over the next eight years.
Apparently, with only two integrated textiles and garment plants operational, Uganda earns $20 million from lint and apparels exports annually.
Only 10 per cent of the 30,000 tonnes of lint produced is currently processed into fabric, with production mainly serving the domestic and regional markets.
More than a decade ago, Uganda began legislation and policy documentation to initiate growth of the local textile industry. This was part of an initiative aimed at enabling the country to cash in on its high quality cotton as opposed to exporting about 90 per cent as lint (in raw form).
According to Bank of Uganda statistics, exported cotton rose to 63,512 tonnes in 2015 from 40,671 tonnes in 2014. But the trend shows a consistent fall in the value of cotton exported despite the improved quantities.
The value of cotton exported fell to $20m in 2015 from $22m in 2014. When the government liberalised the cotton sector, the ginneries (the processors) were also sold off to private companies.
Additionally, with the collapse of the co-operative movement in the 1990’s, the farmer-owned ginneries also collapsed.
Although Uganda qualified for the apparel provisions on October 23, 2001, by year-end 2002 it had not yet exported any goods under this rule.
The country lost $20m of subsidies, including tax waivers and loan guarantees extended to the only Uganda textiles factory that was benefiting from Agoa, Tri-Star Apparel.
In 2006 the factory, which embarrassingly used to import cotton from Pakistan, closed shop.
US apparel companies are interested in products from Uganda but small local factories either produce low quality materials, or cannot accommodate the large orders and respond quickly enough to satisfy the highly-competitive seasonal US market.
Therefore, is it time for President Museveni to reconsider his decision on the GMO law for his country to regain the lost glory?