Monday, April 19, 2010

Cotton Growing Revival: An Interesting Story

Prior to independence in 1975, Angola was one of the largest cotton producers both in Africa and globally. The decimation of the Angolan landscape during the 27 year-long civil war all but destroyed the cotton-growing industry as with most other agricultural industries.

The resurgence in the cotton-growing industry was kickstarted in 2005 by a massive loan agreement of $31.4 million with South Korea's Export-Import Bank to re-launch cotton production in Kwanza Sul province.  The modernization project is only now coming to fruition in 2010 with the completion of construction of irrigation infrastructure for a 5,000 hectare area in the coastal province.  Programs for technical assistance to cotton producers have only recently been ramped up. Though the project will begin in Kwanza Sul Province, it is expected to extend to other traditional cotton producing areas in Malange, Bengo and Benguela provinces and will ultimately employ about 10,000 families.

The initiation and growth of the cotton-growing history in Angola has interesting American roots; from the seeds to missionary involvement - read on! As early as 1820, the Angolan colonial government, ruled by Portugal, tried to promote cotton cultivation by promising to buy all cotton produced in the colony. The raw cotton materials was to be exported to Portugal to supply its burgeoning textile industry.  Under the initiative of the royal government, cotton seeds were acquired from America to distribute to Portuguese farmers in Angola.   
The outbreak of civil war in America in 1861 gave added urgency to the initiatives of the Monarchy and provided a stimulus to colonial producers in Angola to increase production. The war interrupted cotton supplies flowing from the Southern states of America to Portugal and sent international prices spiralling upward some 300%. Industrialists' fears about shortages of raw cotton and cotton cloth supplies from America and high international prices moved the Monarchy's Conselho Ultramarino (Overseas Council) to allow Governors General of Angola to offer concessions of up to 1000 hectares for cotton production, to spend 20 contos a year for a three year period on seeds and gins and to give ten-year duty exemptions on imports of machines, utensils, and means of transport destined for use in cotton production. Three years later, a decree of 14 May 1864 offered bonuses to Portuguese settlers if they grew cotton.  Twenty-five years later, the government offered to exempt Africans from serving military duty in the Portuguese Army if they produced 150 kilos of cotton. 

Though there was a plethora of legislative directives from early 1800s to the mid 1900s, these efforts did not foster any sustained cotton production in Angola. Only when international cotton prices were sufficiently attractive, as in the American Civil War and World War I, were any serious attempts made to produce cotton on a commercial basis.

Poor farming methods and the ambivalence to the crop affected cotton production over the years.  Unlike cocoa and coffee, cotton did not fit easily into subsistence patterns and African peasants therefore were reluctant to adopt it.  According to the local mindset, the plant was not of course edible, ant it occupied and exhausted soil which could not be interplanted with the local cereal staples. Moreover the seasonal labour demands of cotton are quite extensive, and coincide with the time when both men and women are needed for planting, weeding, and harvesting savanna food crops.
A chronicled turnaround in the cotton industry in central Angola was marked by a missionary who revolutionized Angolan agriculture and assisted the struggling cotton industry.  This missionary was Sam Coles, an Alabama African-American who went to Angola in 1923 as an agricultural missionary. Trained in agriculture and industrial arts in Talladega College, Samuel served for 30 years in southern Angola among the Ovimbundu.  Though he introduced new crops such as wheat and fruit, he was instrumental in teaching the Portuguese farmers and Ovimbundu people in the 300-mile area around his mission station how to improve their cotton crops and to farm it on previously unused land.  He introduced  the plow and taught Angolans to train cattle to pull the plows, to carry water, to stump trees, and to transport logs. 

(Adapted from SOWING THE SEEDS OF FAILURE: EARLY PORTUGUESE COTTON CULTIVATION IN ANGOLA AND MOZAMBIQUE, 1820-1926 - Journal of Southern African Studies and from Samuel B. Coles, Preacher with a Plow, Boston 1957)

1 comment:

mae said...

Sam Coles is my grandfather. Thank you for the additional information about the influence of his missionary work.