In the commercial provincial town of Basse in the Upper River Region, cotton farming was a lucrative venture for the people. In 1974, the then Gambia Produce Marketing Board (GPMB) set up the country’s only ginnery in the town, boosting Basse’s reputation as the epicenter of the Gambia’s cotton production and trade.
The establishment of the ginnery was part of a $2 million loan given to The Gambia by the African Development Bank in 1972 to enhance cotton production. It was also to diversify crop production, at a time when groundnut was the main cash crop.
For more than a decade, the ginnery was the pride of Basse and the entire Upper River Division (now URR) as it churned out bales of cotton to the market.
Manlafi Drammeh, a 75-year-old former cotton farmer in URR recalled how the facility brought vibrancy and income to the people of the region.
“I can remember the sound of the machines when people were at work and the vibrancy of the place. There was a lot of life and income.”
“Cotton was the main cash crop for farmers in URR from the 1970s to early 2000. It has changed the lives of many farmers in the region,” Drammeh told The Chronicle.
Omar Sompo Ceesay, the Secretary General of Cotton Growers Association in URR worked at the ginnery for almost three decades.
“Cotton production was very well coordinated by the government. They provided seeds and fertilizers to farmers on loan, as well as extension workers who trained farmers on the cultural practices of cotton production and fertilizer application. the government also set up cotton buying points across the region,” he said.
According to Ceesay, over 10, 000 acres of farmlands were used for cultivation during the good old of cotton production in URR, thus creating employment opportunities for over 3000 farmers. He said this attracted the much needed foreign currency for the country and helped the national economy.
About 15 years ago, the once-thriving cotton industry started crumbling due to factors such as the lack of market. Experts warned the industry was headed for inevitable collapse. Then it collapsed. The ginnery was closed in the 2005/06 cropping season.
Today, the facility lies in ruins. Machines disappeared. Whats’s left is an abandoned and dilapidated building which used to host the cotton processing machines, and broken trucks which were used to transport cotton. The current state of the ginnery epitomises the neglect and the death of Gambia’s cotton industry.
“It’s very sad that we lost the ginnery,” says Korka Jallow, a 54-year-old traditional cotton weaver in Basse. “The ginnery is legendary. Because it’s no more, we now cross the border to Senegal to get raw materials we used to have here.”
Jallow has been weaving using cotton for more than thirty years. Now he’s worried that he and other weavers in URR may go out of business of the high cost involved their trade.
The GPMB was solely responsible for the marketing of cotton before the government privatized the company. By 1982, DEGRIS, a French company took over and renamed it the Gambia Cotton Project (GAMCOT).
“I can say the cotton industry finally collapsed in URR in 2005/06 when DEGRIS a French company owning 60% of shares in GAMCOT decided to wind up operations in the country,” said Peter Baldeh, a former agricultural extension worker who was once responsible for 1000 acres of cotton fields in Wuli. “They left behind heaps of cotton lint belonging to farmers at both the ginnery and buying centers across URR. The farmers were not paid and some of them decided to quit cotton cultivation.”
According to Baldeh, the departure of DEGRIS put over 3000 farmers out of business and made over seventy staff at the ginnery redundant. The French company reportedly left the country following an issue with the regime of Yahya Jammeh.
Ceesay and his Cotton Growers Association are planning to revitalise the cotton sector by reorganizing the farmers to forge partnership with cotton companies and buyers in Senegal.
Karamo Minteh, the Regional Director of Agriculture in URR said efforts are underway to revitalise the sector, citing a visit conducted by the Minister of Agriculture and an Egyptian investor about investment in the sector.
“The renovation of the ginnery is crucial in the revitalization of the cotton sector and I believe the government is on top of matters. There is a political will to do so.”