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[DOUALA, CAMEROON] Cotton farmers in West Africa are tapping into Australian expertise that could lead to improved harvest yields and quality.

Australia is the world's third largest cotton exporter with a 2011 output of 4.2 million bales.  

Some 20 million people in West and Central Africa depend on cotton for their livelihood, but it accounts for less than a third of the region's total export earnings. However, with improvements to soil fertility, pest resistance, improved seeds and drought-related solutions, the industry could be more profitable.

A team of six farmers from Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali — known as the Cotton-4 countries — visited Australia for two weeks last month (14 March).

Their visit was sponsored by Australia's Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and an Australian non-government organisation, Conservation Farmers Inc, as part of one-year training programme under a research and development partnership between Australia and Africa.

Under the programme, a core group, comprised of the six African farmers and four Australian scientists, is developing a training package for researchers, industry and farming groups in West Africa, to increase their knowledge and skills in Australian cotton production systems.

It will cover such topics as trade facilitation, improvements to farming policies, water management, no-till farming, methods to assess soil moisture levels prior to planting and during cultivation, and pest management.  

"Between May and June [2012] the training programme will be rolled out to a group of about 30 representatives from across the Cotton-4 countries, who are expected to propagate the acquired knowledge across the region," said Larelle McMillan, a spokesperson for Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The partnership between CSIRO with the West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development (CORAF/WECARD) and Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa (BecA), is linking the CSIRO with African researchers and farming organisations across 14 countries.

It is part of a broader initiative, funded by the Australian Government Overseas Aid Program (AusAID), to boost agricultural productivity and food security in Africa.

"Leveraging off the cotton industry could be a prospective way to improve staple crops in West Africa, and to secure more food and income for West African communities," Peter Carberry, CSIRO's deputy director for sustainable agriculture, told SciDev.Net.

"There is a real need to provide farmers with state-of-the-art techniques and innovation. Cotton researchers are very few. Most of them are aging, and training young scientists is highly needed," Ousmane Ndoye, programme manager for CORAF/WECARD, said.

"Unless we address fundamental issues such as working with farmers on the ground and boosting the science and technology capacity of African research through our own institutions, we'll never solve the crises that are happening across Africa," Segenet Kelemu, leader of the BecA's Kenya hub, said.

Link to CSIRO-Africa Partnership Programme