August 18, 2022

From Seed to Shirt, Value Addition to Grow Zimbabwe’s Fashion Industry

I was very fortunate to collaborate with Onai Media and be involved as a co-producer of a short documentary that profiles the Zimbabwe fashion industry from the cotton fields to the cotton ginnery (where cotton seed is separated from cotton lint), to the spinners who spin the lint to yarn and to the textile companies who convert the yarn to knitted and woven fabric, making it available to the garment-making industry and finally through to the retailers.

I must admit that Zimbabwe’s textile and clothing industry is emerging from a hiatus and is on a relatively positive trajectory to recovery. It is set to scale new heights if more favourable regulatory policies are put in place to protect the local industry from cheap cotton fabric imports and second hand clothing from donor agencies and foreign markets. They should also enable the country to export ONLY finished textile and clothing products.

The bulk of the cotton farming in Zimbabwe is done by smallholder communal farmers; there is a very small proportion grown by commercial growers. The cotton is handpicked and is packaged into bales of seed cotton and these are taken to the ginners, who separate the seed from the cotton lint. The lint itself is pushed into the textile manufacturing chain and the seed is taken into oil expression and animal feed. From the cotton lint, the various spinning processes produce various yarns and threads of different sizes and strengths that are then passed on to knitters and weavers of fabric who will knit and weave various fabrics for use in the textile industry. From there, the fabric goes to the garment manufacturers and then to the retail stores. 

Zimbabwe’s fashion journey begins humbly with the smallholder cotton farmers, who are largely concentrated in the central and southern regions of the country, to the ginneries at COTTCO and to yarn-spinning factories in Glendale and Harare, and then to textile factories in Bulawayo, Chegutu and Kadoma.

It was a great opportunity to be granted a tour and interview opportunity by Zimbabwe Spinners and Weavers, who are the only standing vertically integrated textile company in Southern Africa. They are the only company who can manage all textile operations, from spinning lint into yarn, through to dyed fabric and certain end products. Zimbabwe Spinners and Weavers are market leaders who are able to lead other industry stakeholders in helping the Zimbabwe cotton industry earn much-needed income, potentially much higher than the tobacco industry’s inflows.

The first call of our tour was with smallholder farmers, and I must admit they are at the centre of the success of Zimbabwe’s cotton industry. There are an estimated 400 000 smallholder cotton farmers countrywide in cotton growing areas including Chiredzi, Chinhoyi, Gokwe, Kadoma, Mutoko, Mutare, Mt Darwin, Muzarabani and Sanyati. Most of these farmers are contracted to COTTCO, a Government of Zimbabwe-controlled company, who are the single largest cotton producing company in the country. According to their website, their target is to contract a further 400 000 small holder farmers, mostly in areas that have stopped cotton production. These areas are mainly in Matabeleland North and South. It is at COTTCO ginneries that cotton lint (a key ingredient in clothing and textile) is separated from seed cotton. Zimbabwe has been exporting most of its cotton lint, but it is in beneficiation or value addition, that real opportunity arises. This is the case with the cotton lint that is being channelled to the spinning factory at Glendale amongst others, where cotton lint is spun into cotton yarn.

Glendale Spinners was originally formed by the cotton farmers in the area and the company has developed into a modern spinning factory that today has the most modern spinning machinery in Zimbabwe. The company currently consumes over 5,000 tonnes of lint annually and supplies the bulk of Zimbabwe’s yarn requirements, as well as being a major exporter of yarn to the region and earner of foreign currency. Roughly 60% of the yarn produced is for local consumption, and 40% is for export. Glendale Spinners has been voted Exporter of the Year in the Textiles Sector numerous times by Zimtrade. Downstream employment from Glendale Spinners numbers in the thousands. From the Blow Room to the Winders, Glendale Spinners produces high-quality yarn of a variety of sizes and strengths.

From Glendale Spinners, some of the yarn finds itself ready for the export market while some of it is passed on to knitters and weavers, who will then convert it into various fabrics for use in the textile industry. We are blessed that here in Zimbabwe, we have a textile and clothing factory in Kadoma Textiles, a sister company of Glendale Spinners. In Kadoma, the factory is capable of producing a large range of quality knitted and woven fabric.

Mr. Sam Kagoro is the head of the department, and he explained to me that weaving starts in the warping stage, where yarn is wound from cones onto beams. The next stage is called the starching, or sizing, department, where the yarn is prepared for weaving. The weaving stage is the beating heart of the textile factory, where the yarn is woven to produce the fabrics. Kadoma Textiles weave various fabrics ranging from workwear to sheeting material to shoe canvas, all which is 100% cotton. From here, the fabrics are inspected and graded; then the fabric is ready for dyeing and is passed on to the wet processes of the factory. It is in the dye house where the value addition aspect comes into play. After final inspection, the product is then ready for export or local customers. In an interview with the dye house manager, Mbiri Tsamula, he explained that there are various processes that are carried out in the dye house which include synching, desizing, bleaching and mercerising before the fabric is dried. These processes are done in order to remove any impurities that are in the fabric because initially, before any fabric is woven, starch is applied. In the dye house, the starch has to be washed off first as well as any other impurities that are in cotton like pectin, oils and any discolorations that are present as you pick up the cotton on the fields. Once processed, the fabric is ready to export or for direct sales from the warehouses in Harare and Bulawayo. Some of it is sold to local Zimbabwean companies, government institutions and hospitals like Caroline Garments, Zimbabwe Hosiery, Kingfisher Prints, Kutaura, Telstone, Bata, Zimbabwe Prison Services and others. At the current stage, Zimbabwe Spinners is currently exporting 20% of the fabric while 80% is being consumed locally.

At Kadoma Textiles, all processes are carried out according to ISO standards to ensure that the fabric is compliant to specified requirements. Kadoma Textiles fabric is mainly exported to South Africa, Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique. These regional customers require certain specifications in terms of dimensional stability, tensile strength, wash fastness and the like, and they apply these internationally renowned standards to make sure the fabric complies with those requirements. Once the fabric is ready and has been tested and meets these requirements, the fabric is ready for inspection. During inspection, there are strict inspection standard criteria that apply to prevent creating substandard fabric with defects. After inspection, then the fabric can be packed and graded. In summary, the dye house runs on a 3-shift system, Monday to Saturday, 24 hours per day.           

In an exclusive interview with Ryan Norman, the Operations Director for Zimbabwe Spinners and Weavers, he indicated that cotton has been grown in Zimbabwe for a very long time, and it is a cash crop that provides an income for a large number of the population, especially in areas where maize and other crops cannot be grown. More importantly, it provides opportunities for the country to manufacture clothing and textiles. Historically, there are quite large areas in Zimbabwe that grow good quality cotton that is capable of competing in the international market. A great deal of the cotton we have here in Zimbabwe is handpicked and overseas buyers tend to favour it. Zimbabwe’s cotton-producing processes and models that were implemented here have been copied elsewhere in Africa and across the rest of the world.

Cotton grows well in the Zimbabwean environment, it is a natural fibre that is traded all over the world and we have the raw materials right here. These facts alone are attractive to investors in textile and cotton chain manufacturing. The proximity of our cotton manufacturing chain to the raw materials keeps our costs low and makes garment manufacture and textile manufacture very competitive on the world market.

When asked on how to enhance exports, collaborations, investments and partnerships on a global scale, Ryan Norman indicated that there is quite a lot that can be done. Over the last 10-15 years, the cotton value chain in Zimbabwe has gone through a hiatus; there have been a lot of factories that have scaled down, but there is a need to return to basics, and the production of our cotton is primary to that. However, there must be some incentives to export. In countries like India, China, Bangladesh etc., the various manufacturing companies are given concessions, incentives and rebates when they want to export. Introduction of these incentives will definitely attract investment and encourage export, and with the right policies in place, we can try to partner with machine manufacturing companies overseas. What we have to understand is that throughout the cotton manufacturing value chain, technology is changing all the time. In order to remain competitive, collaborations with overseas companies, machine manufacturers, and governments in terms of trade agreements are major drivers that we will need to have.

Ryan Norman also spoke about sustainable organisational practices at Zimbabwe Spinners. He highlighted that, as a company, everything that they produce is 100% cotton, apart from the dyes and chemicals. There are cotton initiatives both regionally and internationally where the agencies and companies are promoting sustainable cotton right from the farmer level all the way through, to ensure that the whole chain falls within all the regulations and mandates for better and more sustainable cotton. It is a far better product than a man-made fibre. For example, in the heat, man-made fibres tend to collapse into a plastic kind of form and burn very quickly. There are a lot of advantages for cotton as it is cooler than many synthetic fibres. Therefore, we promote it as much as we can, considering the fact that we grow the cotton here in Zimbabwe and there is no need to import.

When asked about his advice to a young Zimbabwean fashion designer who wants to get in the business, from Zimbabwe Spinners’ point of view, Ryan Norman added that firstly, it is important to understand the processes. When you are a designer, the usual tendency is to pick up and work with the finished fabrics that can come from anywhere in the world. It’s always good to have an understanding of how the fabric you are working with is actually made, which gives a great deal of insight into what you are designing. When it’s time to design, you will have a greater appreciation of the raw materials that you are actually working with.

I would like to thank everyone in the cotton industry who took the time to explain the intricate and impressive processes that take place right here and produce our proudly Zimbabwean products.

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