- Cane gain: KSC produced 387,000 tonnes of sugar last year, some 195,000 tonnes for export Textiles could sow high returns for cotton growers -

Cotton is Sudan's main cash crop, providing 45 per cent of the country's export earnings. There has, however, been almost no development of commercial textile manufacturing to add value to the basic raw material. The first planting of cotton in Sudan came relatively late in the day. The fame of Egypt's cotton had spread far beyond North Africa long before the first seeds were sown in eastern Sudan's Tokay region in the 18th century.

Commercial cotton growing did not begin until 1905 when the Zeidab pilot scheme was initiated in the north of the country. An irrigation system, created by the construction of the Sennar Dam in 1925, enabled cotton to be grown in greater quantities. The material has since assumed a leading role as a cash crop. More than 90 per cent of the cotton is grown in large, irrigated,state-managed schemes. The remainder is cultivated by private farmers and tends to be more reliant on rainfall.

The management of cultivation, ginning, marketing and exporting involves both government, tenant farmers and the private sector. Planting starts in July and ends in August, and picking is from December to March. Ginning occurs between December and June. As Egyptian cotton has earned a reputation for fine quality and durability, such as the type used for tent cloth, so too has Sudanese cotton.

A major variety is Extra Long Staple, which has superior strength and fineness, is grown mainly in Gezira. Sudan has more recently released a top class, extra-fine count cotton, a cultivar combining traditional Sakel with high-yielding Lambert varieties. This type has a high resistance to disease, is the longest variety and has the finest fibre. Others include Nuba and Acrain, both of which are rain-fed. The cotton trade was nationalised in 1970, but moved into the private sector in 1993, and there has been competition between several companies since that time.

ALI 'In a short time, things will be on the right track' The shareholders in the privatised Sudan Cotton Company Ltd (SCCL) include farmers, the Farmers Commercial Bank and the National Pension Fund. "There are some basic differences between our company and the others," says SCCL director-general Aldin Ali. "We have a great deal of experience, and our logistics and facilities - particularly in Port Sudan - are excellent." Mr Ali, a former minister of agriculture, says the cotton sector has declined in the past three years. The total number of 420lb bales exported this year (as at August) was 160,411, compared with 191,035 in 1999, 373,723 in 1998 and more than 400,000 in 1997.

He attributes part of the decline to a sharp drop in global cotton prices, and an increase in Chinese cotton exports. "The other factor is that the price of oil went down and as a result the cost of synthetic materials fell. These are a real competitor to natural-fibre cotton. We reached the lowest price for 25 years and it was a bad time." Mr Ali says the most important strategy is to persuade people to buy natural-fibre clothes and fabrics instead of synthetic. He supports the idea of a domestic cotton textile industry for export, but says the difficulty has always been financing. "The government is trying to help. If the Ministry of Industry is successful, a greater portion of Sudanese cotton will be processed domestically and then exported. Support for this policy means that, in a short time, things will be on the right track."