The cotton industry has had a chequered history among Africans since the beginning of colonialism. During its conception by European colonists, cotton production seemed like a favorable enterprise for Africans, grown as a cash crop. Influence from Belgium, Portugal, Germany, and Great Britain contributed the most toward the modernization of the cotton industry in Africa, whose efforts led to impressive initial yields. In a short time, however, lukewarm yields in cotton fields and textile factories coupled with labor apathy stigmatized the notion of cotton production throughout Africa, further compromising the means of reviving the economies of independent African nation-states. This essay explores the growth and decay of Africa's most well-known cotton mills, the KICOMI complex in Kisumu, as well as how the lifecycles of cotton mills such as KICOMI marked the transformation of cash crop production throughout the rest of the continent.
One of the most well-known cotton ginneries in Africa is the Kisumu Cotton Mill, often known by the KICOMI acronym. It is well known because, according to Kisumu Museum curator Phoebe Awiti, KICOMI has played a major role in providing direct employment opportunities locally, and in the social and economic development of Kisumu. KICOMI is as Kisumu as Kisumu is KICOMI.
KICOMI was founded in 1964 with the help of joint investors from the Khatau group of India and the Development Finance Company of Kisumu. KICOMI’s main goals were to cultivate locally grown cotton and process it into textiles that could then be sold on markets locally and even globally. Through this process, KICOMI was able to provide employment for the surrounding population and stimulate the local economy.
Before addressing KICOMI and its legacy, it is important to understand how cotton came to Kenya. According to Christine Nichols, the cotton industry first came to Kenya through the British Cotton Growing Association (BCGA) in the year 1906. The BCGA raised capital of 500,000 pounds sterling in an effort to provide the technology necessary for efficient cotton production, as well as the education necessary for indigenous Africans to learn European methods of growing and processing the crop.
In 1907, cotton ginneries became commonplace in the areas of Malindi, Kilindini, and Kisumu, with the hope of processing bountiful harvests of the cash crop from surrounding people. Cotton became an important cash crop and local people grew and sold it to the local ginneries. By 1965, a major cotton processing plant known as KICOMI had been constructed on Kicomi Street, connecting Pamba Road and Kisumu-Busia Highway. The plant was officially opened by the President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, on July 28, 1965.
There are many reasons why KICOMI was established in Kisumu. The climate of Kisumu—and Lake Victoria for that matter–is relatively constant and reliable to forecast. While the production and harvest of cotton was still not as favorable when compared to other cotton-rich climates such as those in the United States, the constant climate of Kisumu did not complicate the spinning process of converting cotton into textiles, which played heavily into KICOMI’s output efficiency. Taking KICOMI’s efficiency a step forward was Kisumu’s abundance of fossil fuel; having a steady stream of fuel gave KICOMI plenty of electricity. Having plenty of power for KICOMI’s machinery resulted in more efficient work, and it provided light for better quality work, especially at night. Outside of KICOMI, Kisumu also provided an elaborate network of tarmacked roads for easy transportation of cotton products to the marketplace. Streamlining the sale of domestic cotton products through easy transportation also reduced the downtime of gathering raw materials for KICOMI to start the process all over again. The focus on the production of a quality domestic product, made for Africans by Africans, was a very noble mission statement for KICOMI.
By the 1970s, KICOMI had emerged as the most important cotton processing plant with the greatest impact on the surrounding population of Kisumu. Starting with a workforce of 300 employees, the size of its workforce climbed to as high as 2,000 employees by the 1970s. On average, the number of employees at KICOMI during the 1970s when it was operating full-force was 1,800 employees. KICOMI relied on Kisumu and its surroundings for its labor force. In fact, Kisumu provided the highest concentration of able-bodied laborers for KICOMI, and in turn it benefited from the employment of these people at KICOMI.
KICOMI also relied on cotton lint and other raw materials from the Kisumu region, but it also supplemented its own domestic cotton with lint from Uganda and Tanzania to create textile products. Phoebe Awiti lists “linen, twills, poplin, bed thickenings…curtain cloth, shirting, dress material and suiting” as some of the more notable products from the plant. These products resulted in huge benefits to the people of Kisumu. Thus, besides besides creating jobs for the Kisumu people and their neighbors to make a living, KICOMI also contributed to the economy by purchasing the available cotton materials from Kisumu farmers. KICOMI’s contributions to the global market also gave Kisumu a sense of pride and purpose.
However, good intentions such as those presented by KICOMI have also been met by the harsh challenges of reality. During the 1980s, KICOMI faced many devastating challenges. According to Caline Muchangi Wawira and Dismus Mwabali, the first indicator of KICOMI’s problems was when “the demand for cotton fiber slowed down due to rise in popularity of polyester.” Purified terephtlactic acid, the primary ingredient of polyester, proved to be more durable and cheaper to produce than cotton, which put cotton’s reliance as Africa’s cash crop of choice into question. The fluctuation of the price of cotton, coupled with the material’s high energy demand relative to other agricultural products, caused serious problems for KICOMI directly.
The KICOMI complex itself faced further challenges. As Awiti notes, those included an “insufficient amount of water in the factory, frequent power outages, unskilled labor, cheap competitions from fabrics imported from the near East, [and] second-hand clothes flooding the Kenyan market.” These issues are confirmed by Wawira and Mwabali, who say that KICOMI’s shortcomings included the fact that it “required more than 5,000 gallons of water just to manufacture a T-shirt and a pair of trousers.”
The lower demand for cotton products from KICOMI hamstrung the company’s revenues, which made it unable to repair or replace obsolete machinery. This led to low outputs. Moreover, the aging KICOMI machines led to manufacturing of products that were of poorer quality relative to the expectations set by KICOMI in the 1970s. The huge economic challenges facing KICOMI coincided with the overall sense of apathy towards the cotton industry as many government officials started feeling that efforts to improve local economy should be expended elsewhere rather than at the cotton sector.
As a result, KICOMI’s economic shortcomings led to a further escalation of the company’s problems. Lack of significant profits for KICOMI led to power shortages, leading to the company downsizing and liquidating its capital. The inability of the company to provide for basic needs such as power, water, or sufficient labor inexorably led to management changes at the company, as it struggled to stay afloat.
As if things could not get any worse, the African textile industry ended up becoming liberalized through the IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs [SAP’s] during the 1980s. The Indian group that had established and run the company was forced to give up the company in 1982. The Moi government then stepped in and tried to run the company as a parastatal from 1983 to 1993.
But the Moi government also could not withstand the IMF and World Bank’s SAP’s liberalization demands. It was forced to privatize the company. This privatization policy affected the fortunes of KICOMI a great deal. Henry Bienen describes how the textile liberalization came about as the Kenyan government relinquished direct control of the domestic cotton production and allied industries to the foreign companies. He writes that, after the liberalization of the textile industry and cotton production, the local textile industry could not survive, let alone thrive. Consequently, it became clear to the local entrepreneurs that the local African soil could be put to better use cultivating more robust and more stable crops than the cotton crop. The liberalization programs devastated the KICOMI plant.
Many attempts were then made to revive the facility or re-orient its machineries to alternative economic activities, but these also floundered. After the Moi government relinquished control in 1993, KICOMI came under receivership. KICOMI was then bought by a private concern and it operated again from 1993 to 1999. During this time, KICOMI continued making fabrics, but it could not compete against imports and second-hand clothing coming in during the time. The price of cotton fell. The cost of production especially electricity and fuel oil for boilers continued to be very high. KICOMI consequently collapsed.
There have been attempts by various organizations and institutions such as Maseno University and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University in Bondo to purchase and run the KICOMI complex — presumably for nonprofit services, but such attempts have not made any mark. The reasons are not very clear. The Kenyan government has also apparently refused to sell the company and its land, leaving KICOMI in a state of ruin through to the present day.
KICOMI is currently under the control of a family concern, but instead of making textiles as before, the family has turned the KICOMI premises into a long-distance trucking company yard. The family is looking for investors to help resuscitate the company.
In the meantime, KICOMI premises literally lie in ruins today. The compound is unkempt and shabby. The buildings are dilapidated and the walls are crumbling. Even the KICOMI billboard looks decrepit. With the exception of a few determined souls, including one bored-looking security guard manning the worn-out gate, the KICOMI facility currently looks literally deserted.
Thus, in spite of KICOMI’s initial promising returns and earnest attempts at starting a domestic cotton revolution in Kenya, it seems that, in its present state, KICOMI is going to continue to face an uncertain future and cotton is not going to rejoin its place on the list of Kenya’s leading cash crop as before any time soon.
Yet, regardless of these challenges and the pessimistic vibes around the KICOMI plant, the establishment of KICOMI as a textile plant provides a great narrative of how newly independent African countries such as Kenya were trying to modernize and industrialize their economies, and make a mark in the global economy. It is a narrative worth pondering.
Perhaps we shall soon see the KICOMI facility resuscitated or a new similar industry taking hold in Kisumu, and providing the same services and making the same contributions as KICOMI and becoming a cornerstone of Kisumu’s economy.
KICOMI Rendering, ca. 1970: This artist's rendering shows the Kisumu Cotton Mills (KICOMI) compound as it looked prior to an expansion in 1972. The original factory is located in the lower right corner of the rendering. ~ “KICOMI Rendering, ca1970,” Kisumu Archive, accessed January 22, 2019, https://archive.macleki.org/items/show/2645.
KICOMI 1979: This rendering shows the Kisumu Cotton Mills (KICOMI) complex as it appeared after an expansion that was completed in 1972. ~ Carter Black, “KICOMI Rendering, 1979,” Kisumu Archive, accessed January 22, 2019, https://archive.macleki.org/items/show/2644
Foundation Stone of Original KICOMI Factory: Plaque of the first foundation stone of the original KICOMI cotton mill. ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 11, 2018
Front Doors of Original KICOMI Factory: The front door leading inside the KICOMI Cotton Mills. ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 11, 2018
Original KICOMI Factory Building: The original KICOMI building as seen from near the guard station at the entrance to the compound. ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 11, 2018
KICOMI Workers, 1988: KICOMI workers weaving textile products on September 6, 1988. From a series of photos titled "Journey of Cotton," mounted on a poster board in the KICOMI administration building. ~ Photo courtesy of KICOMI
KICOMI Guard Station: Front side view of the KICOMI Guard Station ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 11, 2018
Offices of KICOMI: Street side view of the KICOMI office building. ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 11, 2018
Intersection of Kicomi Road and Kisumu-Busia Highway ~ Kicomi Road is a very small access road between Pamba Road and the Kisumu-Busia Highway. Although KICOMI is considered public property, it is on an abandoned complex, and is in a very sorry state.