Giving Africa hope through cotton

Updated: Jan 20 2007, 06:30am hrs
Where is he" the old woman asks. "Where is he" Finding Dennis Okelo used to be easy. The old woman -- and most other people in a village outside of Lira, the provincial capital of northern Uganda -- went directly to Okelo's fields. He was always in one of his "gardens," with his slacks rolled up above his calves and a short hoe close by. Or he was seated outside of his mud-brick house under a banana tree.

Then cotton growing revived in Uganda, and Dunavant Enterprises came to town about five years ago, paying cash on delivery. After three seasons of growing cotton for Dunavant, the world's largest privately owned cotton broker and one of the biggest family-owned agribusinesses in the United States, Okelo, who owns less than 3 acres and has two wives and a passel of children, had saved $300, about double his annual earnings before Dunavant started buying his cotton."Before Dunavant, no one came to help us," says Okelo, 40, who has farmed a variety of crops in these parts for about 20 years.

All of this is occurring amid a face-off between American and African cotton growers. Although the United States and Africa have vanishing textile industries, they remain the world's two leading exporters of raw cotton, with about $4.9 billion and $2.1 billion, respectively, in annual cotton sales, amounting to more than half of the $12 billion market worldwide. Cargill, another family-owned American agribusiness, is also chasing a piece of Africa's annual cotton sales, though with less intensity than Dunavant.

The pursuit of cotton in Africa is drenched in history. More than 200 years ago, American cotton growers imported slaves from Africa to turn cotton into one of the nation's economic engines. Contemporary cotton kings go directly to Africa for their product -- and, led by Dunavant, they are helping Africans become more competitive with American growers.

"The whole situation is magnificent news, especially when the problem has been zippo investment by large corporations in Africa," says Robert H. Bates, a Harvard specialist in African agriculture . John Baffes, a cotton analyst at the World Bank agrees, "part of the good news is that the Dunavants and the Cargills will be in Africa for a long time. Those guys are willing to invest a lot of money and to buy in good years and bad years." In parts of Africa where farmers have been rocked by instability of various sorts -- from HIV to civil war consistency is a welcome virtue. "For Africans who have struggled with globalization," Baffes added, "this is a validation."

NY Times / G. Pascal Zachary