Published by EH.NET (September 2003)

Thomas J. Bassett, The Peasant Cotton Revolution in West Africa: Cote D’Ivoire, 1880-1995. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xix + 243 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-78313-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Sylvain H. Boko, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

This book tells the story of how small-scale cotton farmers have used their adherence to free trade principles to revolutionize the cotton sector in West Africa, particularly in Ivory Coast. The books provides details of the historical development of the cotton industry in West Africa, and the innovative roles played by various African communities and groups in the economic and agronomic evolution of cotton in Africa. For example, it turns out from the author’s analysis that “in contrast to the dominant cotton development narrative that emphasizes the critical role played by Europeans in introducing new cotton varieties to West Africa, these ‘exotic’ varieties were in large part derived from African sources.” Further, the research reveals that half of the genetic components were derived from African sources and that African cotton farmers “actively experimented” with new cotton varieties. As the author, Thomas Bassett, points out: “this image of African cotton growers as innovative agents contrasts with the conventional representation of them as passive recipients of introduced technologies.” The research further reveals that in addition to their economic interest in cotton production, Africans had a scientific interest in this sector as well. Hence, Bassett notes that “female cotton spinners [in colonial French Sudan] were quick to appreciate the labor-saving qualities of medium and long-staple cotton.”

The analysis of the historical development of cotton in Africa is also conducted for the colonial period. Indeed, Bassett provides evidence that the French colonial government pursued a policy of cotton export promotion through coercion. In the end this strategy failed, however. The French colonial officers and the colonial textile companies were never able to convince, through coercion, including forced labor, the African cotton producers to produce in sufficient quantities for France’s textile industry. The reason is quite simple. During the colonial period there existed a parallel local cotton market in which prices received by local producers were more attractive than the prices offered by the colonial textile industry. Indeed, Bassett shows that African cotton producers took advantage of the existence of a local handicraft weaving industry that offered producers more competitive prices than were being offered by the colonial textile companies. The author explains that “only when compelled through administrative coercion would cotton growers produce for the export market. When the coercion let up, cotton exports fell dramatically.”

The main point of the book is that the cotton sector represents a success story in the history of agricultural development in Africa. According to this thesis, this success took the form of a dramatic expansion of cotton production, since pre-colonial times, as a result of two processes: “intensification” and (in more recent years) “extensification.” Intensification is explained as “some technical change that involves greater use of labor or other inputs per land unit,” and “extensification” is defined as “an expansion in cultivated area [or] situations in which farmers spread their labor and other inputs more thinly over a larger or smaller area.” Intensification resulted from the farmers’ choices of innovative and labor-saving technologies and usage of inputs such as fertilizer, to increase land productivity. This has been an on-going process since pre-colonial times. However, “extensification” became a farming strategy in more recent years as a result of the glut in the world cotton market, the subsequent drop in cotton prices and the World Bank-mandated elimination of subsidies for cotton farmers by the state textile company.

But regardless of the actual process of expansion, as explained by the book, the dramatic expansion in cotton production came about as a result of the “interplay of directed and induced technological and socio-cultural innovations that have developed in a dialectical and incremental manner since the early colonial period.” This “revolution” in the cotton sector was fueled by “negotiations” among African peasants and various external and internal agents, and the result of these interactions was that “new farming techniques and crop mixes, and different forms of labor organization and conjugal relations …” were adopted. Further, the book attempts to show, through detailed historical and field analysis, that the Africans themselves were largely responsible for this “cotton revolution” and that the role of foreign development experts in this African agricultural success story is exaggerated. African cotton producers, Bassett maintains, contributed to the “cotton revolution” in Ivory Coast through the adoption of innovative and labor-saving technologies, and their influence on government-directed research and price support policies, as independent producers who have proven their rationality over the decades by responding to price signals and profit opportunities rather than institutional price fixing or coercion. The book also points to important social changes in the cotton producing regions of Ivory Coast, including “flexible ways of interpreting culturally prescribed rest days, new forms of labor mobilization, and the greater importance of women’s work in household fields” as another important set of factors that have also contributed to the innovative success of cotton production in Africa.

The book is well detailed in its research and historical account of the development of the cotton sector in Africa. There is no question that this is one of the success stories coming out of the region. Indeed since 1980, cotton production has quadrupled for the main West African cotton producing countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Ivory Coast and Togo. For the region, cotton production now ranges from 5 to 10 percent of GDP and accounts for 30 percent of exports (for some individual countries such as Benin, cotton accounts for over 70 percent of exports). As maintained by the UN 2003 Human Development Report (HDR), many of these countries rely on cotton revenues to finance economic and social infrastructure in rural areas. However, the book fails to capture the important dynamics and distortions in the global cotton market which have direct impacts on small-scale producers in African countries. This omission may limit the usefulness of the analysis for policy-making.

As this review is being written, a group of African countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali, are negotiating with their WTO partners in Cancun, Mexico to enact a “sectoral initiative in favor of cotton” as one of the tools for poverty reduction. These countries and their co-sponsors base their request on the following facts: whereas African countries have undertaken a number of reforms in their cotton sector and have cut costs and improved productivity, a number of other exporting countries, including the United States, the European Union and China, have heavily subsidized their cotton industries, including providing export subsidies. According to the 2003 HDR, “in 2002 direct financial assistance (from the US, EU and China to cotton producers) was estimated to equal 73 percent of world production, considerably higher than the 50 percent recorded five years before.” Further, the report explains that “in 2001 these programs cost $4.9 billion, with about half provided by the United States” (p. 157). The heavy subsidization of the cotton sector by the Northern countries causes distortions in the global market since the resulting artificial glut is a direct cause of the price drops that have been experienced over the last few years in the sector. Clearly, poor exporting countries like those in West and Central Africa, that do not subsidize their production, but enjoy a competitive advantage and are forced to sell at close to cost suffer the most. Small farmers in these countries, for whom cotton is for the most part the only commodity they can export competitively, have only experienced a steady decline in their incomes beginning in 1985. Thus poverty continues to deepen as these farmers work more and more to maintain their productivity and competitive edge.

The solution proposed by the African producers group at the Cancun meeting is two-prong: a) the establishment of a mechanism to phase out support for cotton production with a view to its total elimination, and b) transitional measures in the form of financial compensation for cotton-producing LDCs to offset their loss of revenue (which resulted from dumping by the EU, US, and China), until support for cotton production has been completely phased out.

It remains to be seen whether these countries will be successful in Cancun, but there is no question but that more than development aid and other hand-outs, the best tool to combat poverty in poor countries is for them to receive fair and competitive prices in the world markets for the products in which they hold comparative advantage.

Reference: United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Human Development Report: Millennium Development Goals: A Compact among Nations to End Human Poverty, 2003, Oxford University Press.

Sylvan Boko is the author of Decentralization and Reform in Africa (Kluwer, 2002).