Joseph Kempen, CEO of Loskop Gin, says that cotton should be the Marblehall area’s logo. “We have massive unemployment here, but also beautiful cotton soils and access to water. Cotton can play a huge role in job creation.” And this, he adds, is one of the main reasons why he and Loskop Gin got involved in the Sustainable Cotton Cluster.
In the Marble Hall area, unemployment stands at more than 50% and cotton is the solution, Joseph believes. “With the necessary support, we can create 2 000 jobs in six months if we plant now. Because cotton is not a crop that farmers consume themselves but have to sell, it gives them money in their pockets to invest. In this way farmers can start moving up the value chain and away from subsistence. It isn’t a quick solution, but it is a sustainable one.”
A successful cotton value chain, however, depends on access to a gin, which is where the crop’s value is unlocked. The gin should be near the farms to keep transport costs as low as possible.
Currently, there are six gins in South Africa, one of which is privately owned and does not on-sell the lint cotton. The other gins pay the farmers for their cotton and then sell the lint to the spinners and weavers where yarn is made.
One of the major projects planned for the incubation aspect of the Sustainable Cotton Cluster is to establish another gin. Joseph says that South Africa has always imported second-hand gins from America because it is just too expensive to set up a brand new plant. “But even so, many millions of Rands are needed to build and commission a gin,” he says.
Adding to the cost is the fact that a gin needs to be on at least 10 hectares of land so that there is space to store the cotton bales while they wait to be ginned. “The important thing is to get the cotton in from the fields as soon as possible,” Joseph says. “The compressed bales can stand here for several weeks without losing quality.”
Although crop size will determine the size and kind of plant to be established, a good rule of thumb is that at least 8 million kilograms of cotton are needed to justify a gin. “You must be able to process the whole crop within 100 working days for maximum productivity, efficient use of resources and to prevent quality losses,” Joseph explains. “The point is that you have to make the gin as profitable as possible to make the most of the capital invested in it.”
Gins are not major employers. Loskop Gin only has 17 permanent employees; seasonal workers swell the numbers by an additional 40 to 50 people.
Interestingly, the technology that separates the cotton seed and fibre at the gin is largely the same as 100 years ago. The cleaning process has been improved over the years and electronic condition monitoring of the machines now make preventative maintenance easier.
Something else that remains constant is that ginners have to be properly trained to prevent damage to the cotton fibres in the ginning process. In fact, weather aside, the quality of cotton is most influenced by the settings on the ginning machine.
“I came into the industry when cotton was at its lowest point,” says Joseph. “We knew things had to change and when Heinrich (CEO of the Sustainable Cotton Cluster) showed us the scope of what was being planned we knew the Cluster was the answer. I enjoy the industry with all its challenges and opportunities and look forward to the difference the Cluster is going to make.”