By Tapiwa Nyasha Mutonda
While launching the 2023 cotton marketing season in Mahuwe last month, Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development minister Dr Anxious Masuka bemoaned poor quality seed cotton, before urging farmers to carry out pre-grading so that their crop can fetch good grades and prices on the market.
Over the years, cotton produced in Zimbabwe has enjoyed a reputation of being among the least contaminated origins in the world. Since the inception of major production, we always had a grading system, whereby seed cotton at point of purchase would be graded into four basic seed cotton grades A to D.
Contamination was a major criterion during the buying process. This high-quality standard was maintained during the “duopoly” years of 1995 to 2001, but quality deteriorated since 2002 as cotton grading had disappeared at the point of purchase and varying grades were purchased and ginned together instead of sorting them like with like.
Seed cotton quality
The quality of seed cotton has over the years been on the downside because of a number of key factors, some of which include:
- Poor rainfall pattern which leads to the discoloration of fibres,
- Leaf trash,
- Weak or immature fibres,
- Insect stain due to lack of adequate application of chemicals,
- Lack of grade differential payments demotivated farmers to pre-grade their seed cotton.
During the 2022 marketing season, only 2% of seed cotton was in grade A, followed by 4% in grade B, while the bulk of seed cotton was in lower grades.
2022 seed cotton grades breakdown
These less impressive grades call for greater and more concerted efforts by all concerned parties in ensuring that grade differential prices are paid and that farmers are trained in cotton grading, among other measures, so that there is minimum contamination of seed cotton.
In trying to correct this downward trend on cotton quality, the Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA) has in recent years begun to resuscitate proper cotton grading and pushing for grade price differential payments.
In 2013, it begun the establishment of national cotton standards through the grading boxes refurbishment exercise, a process whereby cotton grades are carefully displayed in sets of boxes showing the maximum acceptable downgrading factors in each box.
Furthermore, in line with Statutory Instrument (SI) 142 of 2009 as amended by SI 63 of 2011 and SI118 of 2022, this year all cotton merchants are compelled to pay grade differential payments before end of November. Apart from payment by grades, AMA, through its field officers and clerks, will this season ensure that grades are displayed at every common buying points (CBP) as feedback to farmers, so that they are aware of the grades awarded to them during the grading process.
Lastly, AMA is on a national drive, educating farmers through farmer field schools and the establishment of demonstrations plots in all cotton growing areas.
Cotton quality factors
The quality of cotton fibre depends on many factors including variety, weather conditions, cultural practices, harvesting and storage practices, moisture and trash content, ginning processes, post-packing storage and general handling practices.
Certain quality characteristics are highly influenced by genetics, while others are determined by environmental conditions, cultural practices, or by harvesting and ginning practices.
Other common downgrading factors include colour background, insect stain, soil stain, weak of immature fibres and leaf trash. Moreso, seed cotton can be rejected for various reasons during grading. It is rejected when contaminants are identified during the grading process and these are; polypropylene, oil, grease of fuel contamination, high moisture content above 12.5%, burnt or scorched cotton and, sticks or stones inside a seed cotton pack.
Fibre quality is highest the day a mature cotton boll opens. Weathering, mechanical harvesting, handling, and ginning can diminish the natural quality of cotton. As for Zimbabwean cotton, it is hand-picked, hence the natural quality should be harnessed from the field and maintained.
What is cotton grading
It is the visual interpretation or appraisal of seed cotton to identify similarities in quality through comparison with physical and descriptive standards depicted in national cotton standard grading boxes in line with SI 142 of 2009. Manual grading is based on appearance and feel and is accomplished mainly through the human senses of sight and touch.
In conclusion, quality improvement requires a concerted effort and a comprehensive strategy involving regulatory authorities, researchers, producers, ginners, and transporters alike to improve fibre properties through research and better production, handling, and marketing practices.
Payment of grade differential prices will go a long way in motivating farmers to exercise pre-grading at homestead level leading to improved cotton grades.
Tapiwa Nyasha Mutonda is AMA agricultural quality inspector.
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