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Burkina Cloth Reveals Paradoxes in Country's Biggest Industry


March 8 is International Women's Day, a national holiday in Burkina Faso. One way of celebrating is by making new clothes from Women's Day cloth that is designed with a new pattern every year. Burkina Faso is Africa's largest cotton producer, but the cloth reveals contradictions in the country's biggest industry.

In Burkina Faso's second-largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso, cloth merchant Douda Tassembedo walks up and down the streets selling new designs. Today he has rolls of cloth for International Women's Day, March 8. A lot of women are looking, but Tassembedo is having a hard time getting anyone to buy. He says business is slow. He says people buy one piece, or at most three pieces, each, not too much. So he says if he makes five sales a day he can get by.

Tassembedo passes by one lady, Salimata Ouedrago, wearing the Women's Day cloth from last year. She decides not to buy this year's design quite yet.

Ouedrago says in Burkina Faso, March 8 is a day for women to relax and men to take care of everything at home. Ouedrago says the men go to the market, run errands and then come home and cook. But she says the March 8 designs are expensive.

The cloth vendor says "good bye" and keeps walking.

In the town of Koudougou, the machines at Burkina Faso's only textile factory, Fasotex, are busy printing cloth for Women's Day. Even though this cloth is specially designed for Burkina Faso, only about a third is manufactured in the country.

The Fasotex factory has had trouble making money recently. It was privatized and reopened in 2006 after losing money as a national business. Since then, only one small part of the factory has gotten up and running.

Today, Fasotex only prints designs on fabric, it does not turn the raw cotton into cloth like it used to. Underneath the designs, the fabric itself is imported from Benin, even though Burkina Faso is Africa's largest producer of cotton.

Factory director, Elie Grand, says that is because the machines in the factory are outdated. He says the modern looms outside the country do the same job six or seven times quicker than the Fasotex machines. Grand says if they were to make the cloth now, it would be twice as expensive as buying it from outside.

Virtually all of Burkina Faso's cotton is exported. Of the 400,000 tons of cotton it produced last year, far less than one percent actually stayed in the country. The rest goes abroad to Asia, Ghana and Europe. It is sold at a price determined on the world market. About 20 percent of the population depends on cotton farming.

On a small farm outside Bobo-Dioulasso, farmer Sogo Sanou is getting his cotton fields ready for planting.

Sanou says that cotton used to be the biggest part of his farm, but now that the price has been dropping, he plants more corn. He goes on to say that with cotton, even if farmers do good work, they will not have anything to show for it. He says fertilizer is very expensive and they have to borrow money to pay for it. Sometimes, even after the harvest, Sanou says farmers have to pawn their belongings to pay back their creditors.

But some people think cotton producers could make a better profit, if their crops could be used in Burkina Faso.

National Union of Cotton Producers Coordinator Leonce Sanon says Burkina Faso has a very weak capacity to turn cotton into fabric. But, he says, he thinks developing the textile industry would help increase the revenue of the producers.

There are a few efforts to do that. At the Fasotex factory, General Manager Grand is working on getting a new fleet of machines that would begin weaving cloth out of local cotton by next year. He says it will not be a big part of national consumption, but Grand says it will certainly give other people the idea to do the same thing across West Africa.

Back on the streets of Bobo-Dioulasso, Douda Tassembedo the Women's Day cloth vendor has finally found an interested customer. She looks at the cloth and they haggle over the price. She decides to buy some and even says her friend wants some too. Tassembedo makes a sale. He celebrates with a calabash of millet beer, and then keeps walking.

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