During my stay in Zambia (almost wrote Malawi there, still getting used to be here in Zambia apparently!) I will be working for a company that is historically a cotton company. This company has expanded into other markets, but I will leave that for another post.
As I think is probably true for a lot of Canadians I had never seen a cotton field prior to coming to Zambia, with the exception of the odd movie that depicts cotton plantations in the Southern US. With such a limited understanding of such an important crop for the company I am consulting for, and for the world, I was extremely keen to get a tour of the cotton gin on my last field study.
*I just want to mention, it was tricky trying to follow all of the steps. I have tried to accurately capture the process, but due to language barriers and me being a newbie in the world of cotton production it is quite possible there may be an error or two.
Here is where the who process starts, in the fields. Special credit to my amazing translator Marty who is shown below with a freshly picked handful of the fluffy white stuff and a field ready to be harvested.
The cotton is normally harvested by groups women, doing one field at a time, while also looking after the youngest children from their households. It was not uncommon to see ladies with babies tied to their backs while harvesting.
Once the cotton is harvested it is placed inside large jute bags, loaded onto a tractor and taken to the gin. The first stop for the tractor is to go onto the weigh scale to see how many tons have been brought in by a specific farmer so that he can be paid for the weight of the crop he has brought in. The farmer is paid based on the grade of the cotton he has brought in.
Next the cotton is unloaded from the tractor and each bag is emptied onto a machine that will help to compact the cotton into a large cube called a module. There are two ways of doing this at this gin, the automatic system featured below or a manual 5 sided box filled with cotton that a group of men jump on top of to compact.
The cotton modules are then placed back on the tractor trailer and reweighed to ensure that they are between 6.5 and 7 tons each. These modules are stored in a large warehouse until it is their turn to be processed.
Only one grade of cotton is processed each day, so at the beginning of a day someone will go and get enough modules of the same grade to process. Then the modules are broken up and the loose cotton is manually shovelled onto a conveyor belt. It passes a line of sitting women who pick out the biggest impurities before the cotton gets vacuumed into the gin.
Cotton selfie 🙂
Once the cotton get into the gin it goes through these huge (and extremely loud) machines. There are small knives that shred the cotton fluff off the seed. The seed being heavier falls to the bottom of the machine and the fluff and seed get sent to different areas of the gin.
A nice clean fluffy tuft is then taken from the bail and a tags with matching codes are placed in the sample piece and the main bail. The samples can then be taken to buyers, which is much easier than bringing along the whole bail.
The cotton’s humidity is also tested. The goal is to have 8% moisture. If the moisture is not right it is taken to the Samuel Jackson Humidaire Unit 🙂
Then the bail is bagged.
And taken to the warehouse. This is one day’s, 8 hours, or 90 tons worth of cotton.
The cotton seed that was separated from the cotton that I mentioned earlier, is sent to the back of the gin where is packed into 50 kg bags and sent to a seed company for processing and de-linting. Eventually to be sold back to farmers for next year’s crop.
The dirt removed from the cotton is also collected and bagged. This is an excellent fertilizer for the crops and is given away for free to any farmer wanting to come and pick it up.
After this, the cotton is sold to buyers who then turn it into the products we purchase every day!