Mobile technology and cotton sustainability

Challenges to cotton sustainability include increases in temperature, changes in rainfall patterns, and urban migration.

By Amy Barthorpe, Head of Business Development.

What are you wearing today? Whatever brand it is, whatever colour, or size, there is a 50/50 chance that it is made from cotton.

Cotton has been used for thousands of years (with cotton garments found as early as 6,000 BC!) and is one of the most durable, versatile materials, used to create everything from clothing to bed sheets. Cotton fibre is used in more than half of the world’s textiles and is thus a very important raw material in the global economy.

Cotton is grown largely in sub-tropical climates, where cotton production is increasingly affected by water scarcity, soil degradation, and climate change. Cotton sustainability has thus become a high priority for the industry.

Threats to cotton sustainability

Peru is a good example of how cotton sustainability is threatened by climatic changes. The temperatures in coastal regions of Peru have raised significantly in recent years and even a couple of degrees increase in temperature can damage cotton. This year Peru also expects to be impacted by the strongest El Niño in recorded history and the heavy rains might drown cotton plants.

In addition to this, because cotton farmers face more and more challenges, many farmers in developing countries are now diversifying into new crops. Rice is a crop which grows well in similar climates to cotton and can give farmers higher returns. There is also a trend of urban migration which poses a threat to cotton sustainability. Many young people are migrating to big cities in order to find more lucrative work.

If these trends in migration and diversification continue, the question arises: how will cotton still be grown in these regions?

It is clear that in order to secure cotton sustainability, there needs to be a concerted effort to drive sustainable practices at every level of the supply chain. Much action has been taken to reduce water usage and increase energy efficiency but implementing sustainability at the farmer level still remains a challenge, partly because cotton farmers live in isolated parts of the world which makes getting information to them difficult.

Mobile technology – an effective solution

However, the recent ubiquity in mobile technology has created a huge opportunity to help achieve cotton sustainability. 90% of people in developing countries now have access to a mobile phone, which means that farmers can learn about farming through their mobile phones, without needing to leave their farms.

SMS in particular is helping cotton farmers improve their farming practices. In the Piura region in Peru, farmers have been learning about cotton sustainability through WeFarm, a network that connects farmers with their peers via SMS. Cotton farmers have been sharing ideas and best practices on cotton sustainability as well as learning how to protect cotton from climate change and how to deal with many other challenges they face.

Initially developed as a communications platform for farmers to share grassroots innovations and sustainable farming practices, our service allows farmers to get tailored information specific to their situation straight to their mobile phone; a cotton farmer can find out how to protect their crop against erratic climate, or learn how to make their own organic fertiliser.

Meanwhile, the interactions generated on the service can be analysed for trends and highlight potential issues in the supply chain. For example, the top themes within this group of farmers were: pests and infestations; cotton fungus; climate and weather; and finally, access to finance. Monitoring farmers’ daily interactions makes it possible to provide early warnings to businesses and reduce the impact of pests and diseases on crop yields and quality.

Engaging young people in cotton sustainability

Not only does SMS technology provide an opportunity to disseminate information, it also helps to engage young people in agriculture. New tools and platforms can make farming cotton a more lucrative profession with fewer hardships, thus making it a more attractive option for young people who might otherwise migrate to the cities in search of work.

Many other agricultural industries have already taken advantage of SMS as an effective way of sharing information with farmers, helping them to improve their livelihoods and creating a strong foundation for a sustainable supply chain, but with cotton, this trend is still in its infancy. The opportunities for SMS to drive sustainability gives reason to be hopeful, and we should all continue sowing the seeds for cotton sustainability.

If you would like more information on how you could partner with WeFarm please contact Amy on amy@wefarm.org.

Posted 6 May 2016 | Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,