That quest is not realised much today despite the scatter of manufactured fabrics, and the East African Community council of ministers has been taking a hard look at the matter again.
It is a hard nut to crack as it isn’t just for EAC member-states to agree but also has to do with adapting to world trade rules.
Not much of this hurdle was cited in the concluding deliberations of the 39th Meeting of the EAC Council of Ministers which approved a final draft for the Cotton, Textiles and Apparels (CTA) strategy and its implementation roadmap.
There will likely be new elements in the current draft as it ought to have considered the failure of simple protectionism – specifically, the banning of trade in used clothes.
This was the strategy adopted in 2016 when the ministerial council accepted a three-year-long weaning of the EAC public off used clothing, and the United States moved to retaliate should any country implement that notice.
This change of outlook is apparent from the summation of what that new strategy is all about, as it was stated that its vision is to have “an integrated and globally competitive cotton, textiles and apparel industry”.
“Integrated” definitely refers to its mode of activity within the EAC zone, while “competitive” has to include an element of fabrics from other countries like India and China.
It would also likely mean accommodating used clothes both as part of bilateral trade ties with the US and then also as a welfare dimension in the EAC zone.
Having a competitive industry means having an industry that doesn’t rely on protection but can face competition and remain standing on its own feet, as it were.
What applies to the cotton sub-sector also largely applies to the leather industry, as their climatic environments are closely intertwined and their economic context is similarly tied to competition with cheap imports.
In both cases, the ministerial council approved final drafts and implementation roadmaps directing the EAC Partner States to give priority to the implementation of the twin strategies. It isn’t clear yet what its modus operandi is set to be.
Elements in the ministers’ deliberations hint on the way ahead, including saying that the seed cotton sector is constrained by low and declining production, low productivity, low quality and fluctuating farm gate prices.
It adds that textile mills are also constrained by outdated technology, low spinning capacity, low availability of cotton lint, high cost of energy and low skills level. All these are problems that can be solved without engaging protection.
What the ministers and the EAC Secretariat ought to try and resolve is issues like inadequate supply of cotton lint. As to this aspect, the council was told that this shortage was compelling manufacturers of fabrics to either buy or hold stock covering a one-year production cycle, or shut down during off-seasons when they lack funds for bulk purchases.
With particular respect to apparel, the ministers heard that the sector suffers mainly from low skills and low local market penetration by local producers. There were also complaints on contraband and used clothes, which relates to law enforcement and protection. The latter ought to be tightened, but protection can prove hugely risky.