Africa’s Bitter Harvest

Souley Madi is one of the most productive cotton growers in the Badjengo Cameroon, an area where the lush forests of central Africa give way to the semi-arid Sahel. Thanks to a combination of intense heat and periodic Sahelian rains, Madi consistently produces clean, high-quality cotton on the gently sloping hills that surround his walled compound.

But, as the next growing season approaches, Madi, who is 40, faces a difficult decision: how much cotton should he grow this year? Prices for cotton were so low last year that Madi cut his acreage. He earned less from cotton last year than the year before, and much less than he earned five years ago. “I’m angry, but what can I do?” he asks.

This year Madi may grow even less cotton, even though the crop is the main source of income for himself, his two wives and his five children. On some of his land, he now grows corn and peanuts instead of cotton.

But cotton potentially offers the best payback, because it has cash value on the international market and can be stored for long periods of time. Like millions of other African cotton farmers, Madi has advantages over cotton farmers in other parts of the world. His land costs are low. So are his labor costs, since he relies on family and friends to weed and pick the crop.