Upgrading cotton production in Mozambique – the role of the Better Cotton Initiative

In an effort to revitalise its cotton industry, the Mozambique government is partnering with the Better Cotton Initiative, with the aim of becoming one of the first countries in the world to produce 100% of its cotton as ‘Better Cotton’. 

Background – Mozambique’s struggling cotton trade

Cotton production is an important industry in Mozambique, contributing to around a fifth of agricultural exports.[1] In central and northern Mozambique, it’s one of the main sources of income for rural families.[2] In the 2016-17 season, 170,000 smallholders, who typically farm less than a hectare each, accounted for 90% of the country’s total production.[3]

There is considerable scope to expand the country’s cotton industry. Following decades of civil war, the country’s agricultural sector has recovered strongly over the last 20 years. However, cotton production remains considerably lower than at its pre-independence peak of 144,000 tonnes in 1974. In recent years, yields have fluctuated considerably, leaving many ginneries (processing plants) operating below capacity and unable to adequately plan for the future. [4]

An all-time peak of 182,000 tonnes was reached in the 2011-2012 season, a response to the record high farm gate price of the previous seasons (of 50 USD cents/kg against average compared to 20 USD cents/kg over past 10 years). The national yield average has only progressed from 400 to 600 ton/ha, with production increases coming mainly from an increase in plant density and some farming practices. There is a potential in Mozambique to both increase and stabilise cotton production.[5]

Along with the economic challenges related to production, cotton also poses a number of sustainability challenges. Cotton agriculture in Mozambique is rain-fed leaving farmers vulnerable to drought, so efficient water management is essential. Loss of soil fertility and erosion pose a significant threat to cotton yields, as do pests, but most farmers can only afford limited use of pesticides.

One of the main reasons for low yield is the use of poor quality seeds. The Cotton Institute of Mozambique (IAM), the government body that oversees the cotton sector, carried out a limited number of successful seed production initiatives in collaboration with cotton companies and is committed to creating a public-private seed company. Poor labour conditions, including child work, are also endemic in the cotton sector.[i]

Cotton production in Mozambique uses a concession model. The government grants a company, usually a ginner (processor), the right to be the sole operator in a particular area. In return, the company must provide inputs to farmers – including seeds and pesticides, but also extension services to educate farmers on better agricultural practices. The country has 12 concessions, including national companies and a few multinationals.  There is also a minimum price definition mechanism that includes input from farmers and ginners with government mediation.

Making cotton more sustainable and profitable – the role of BCI

In 2011 IAM launched a Cotton Value Chain Revitalization Plan to increase both productivity and sustainability of the sector. IAM had previously introduced measures to minimise the use of chemical inputs and increase erosion control in cotton fields, along with the extension services provided by concession holders, all of which had limited impact.

A renewed focus on sustainability led IAM to engage the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), an international voluntary sustainability standard system. Established in 2009 by a coalition of NGOs, cotton industry organisations and retailers and brands, BCI has become the leading international sustainability standard for cotton production.

Growing ‘Better Cotton’, the product of licensed farmers who meet a series of minimum criteria and demonstrate a commit to continuous improvement, will enable Mozambique’s producers to meet the needs of large international buyers that have committed to sourcing Better Cotton. For example, adidas, C&A, H&M, IKEA and Nike have all committed to using 100% cotton from more sustainable sources by 2020 or before.[6] While Better Cotton doesn’t carry a price premium, establishing these market relationships can help to reduce the risk of price volatility.

Another significant attraction of the Better Cotton Standard System is its experience collaborating with local actors in different country contexts. For example, in Brazil, BCI partners with the Brazilian Association of Cotton Producers (ABRAPA), whose own Responsible Brazilian Cotton programme has been aligned, or ‘benchmarked’, with the Better Cotton Standard.

BCI’s capacity building programme in Mozambique provides an opportunity to upgrade the extension services provided by concession holders. BCI focuses on investing in capacity building upfront, rather than simply checking outcomes through licensing. Farmers are given training and technical assistance to meet the Better Cotton Standard, which is delivered by “implementing partners” linked to BCI through a formal partnership agreement. Implementing partners include government bodies, national associations, multinational businesses and local companies. They themselves receive training on the Better Cotton Standard System and develop guidance for applying it in a national context.

In 2014, IAM and BCI signed a strategic partnership agreement, which embeds the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria within Mozambique’s national regulations for cotton growing. This marks the first time a national government has adopted the Better Cotton Standard, putting Mozambique on course to be one of the first countries to produce 100% ‘Better Cotton’.

Emerging sustainability outcomes

In addition to their collaboration with the government, BCI also engaged OLAM, the world’s second largest cotton merchant, to become the first BCI implementing partner in Mozambique. In doing so, OLAM and BCI worked with 6,300 farmers to produce the country’s first Better Cotton harvest in 2013. Since then, concession holders including SAN-JFS and SANAM have joined as BCI and the Mozambique government started collaborating and coordinating efforts.

In 2014, the number of farmers growing Better Cotton in Mozambique jumped to 75,000, producing 9,500 tonnes of cotton lint on 52,000 hectares.[7] According to BCI data from that year, their productivity was dramatically higher than for comparable conventional cotton farmers: yields were 57% higher and profitability was 65% higher.[8] In 2015, the number of BCI Licensed Farmers increased to 78,912, with a further 17,000 farmers receiving capacity building support. However, challenging climatic conditions – including both floods and droughts – led to production dropping to 8,000 tonnes, with one in five BCI Farmers losing their crop altogether. On average, yields were 15% higher for BCI Licensed Farmers than for comparison cotton farmers not implementing the standard.

This illustrates how implementing credible sustainability standards can contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – specifically targets on improved productivity and increased resilience in small-scale agriculture under SDG2 (Zero Hunger). Also contributing to SDG2, BCI criteria aim to enhance soil quality without over-reliance on synthetic fertilisers. Farmers have adopted practices such as intercropping, crop rotation and growing cover crops, increased crop density. However, there is the opportunity to increase judicious fertiliser use in Mozambique, particularly since few farmers raise livestock, limiting the opportunity to apply manure. 

Implementing the Better Cotton Standard has led farmers to make a number of other improvements that also contribute toward the SDGs. For example, while cotton production in Mozambique does not use irrigation, farmers employ a number of techniques to retain soil moisture and prevent water loss, such as mulching and contour farming. These techniques also reduce pollution of local water sources by preventing run-off from fields, contributing to SDG6 (Clean Water and Sanitation).

Implementing partners are also addressing the issue of child labour, which is directly relevant to SDG4 (Quality Education) and SDG8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth). Rural areas of Mozambique have few secondary schools, and children often work on their family farms. However, BCI implementing partners are working to increase understanding of the importance of education, and what jobs are and are not suitable for young people.

The dynamics of the process also illustrates how a standard system can bring together different national and international actors in new partnerships, as envisioned by SDG17 which aims to strengthen the means of implementation and global partnerships for the SDG agenda.

Next steps

Mozambique is now developing its own national standard for sustainable cotton production, which will mirror the principles and criteria developed by BCI, and include additional sustainability criteria related to the parts of the cotton supply chain not covered by the BCI standard. Following this, the verification and licensing process is expected to be transferred from BCI to IAM. Both are currently training and developing certification bodies based in Mozambique to carry out the external third-party audits.

Because the BCI Standard is embedded within this national-level standard and verification process, BCI will recognise Mozambique cotton through a ‘benchmarking’ agreement. Similar agreements exist with other cotton certification schemes, including Cotton Made In Africa (CmiA), Australia’s myBMP and Brazil’s Algodão Brasileira Responsável (ABR). This agreement will ensure that cotton grown in Mozambique by BCI Licensed Farmers can be sold as certified Better Cotton on international markets.

Lessons for policy-making

The partnership between BCI and the Mozambique government shows how policy-makers can use credible, mission-driven standard systems to meet development goals, while revitalising nationally important industries.

In addition to using the principles and requirements of an international standard to shape its own cotton policy, policy-makers in Mozambique fully engaged BCI to provide technical capacity building and expertise. This mutual engagement and recognition between government policy and a private standard organisation has enabled producers to adopt better practices and created positive sustainability outcomes contributing to the SDG agenda.


ISEAL case studies series: Governments and Private Sustainability Standards

Private standards and public policy or regulation are not always aligned or coordinated. However, to achieve sustainability outcomes in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, new forms of co-regulation are needed to enable sustainable production, trade, and consumption. This series of case-studies illustrates how standard systems and governments are already interacting and partnering in a variety of ways to create such sustainability outcomes. The series is developed by the ISEAL Alliance, the global association for credible sustainability standards.

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[i] Child work is different from child labour in that children, in a smallholding family context, may help on their families’ farms supervised and under safe conditions when school is not available or in session.