By  on December 8, 2010

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A former landmine-strewn Portuguese colony in western Africa emerging from decades of war seems an unlikely candidate for double-digit economic growth, but Angola has become one of the continent’s success stories.

While oil and diamonds have contributed significantly to the country’s impressive growth rates — in 2007, prior to the global economic crisis, Angola posted 26 percent growth — the cotton industry is poised for a revival.

From the Sixties up to 1975, when it gained independence, Angola was one of the largest producers of cotton in Africa and the world. The highest recorded crop yield, in 1973, exceeded 165,000 tons. The ensuing civil war, which lasted 27 years, only ending in 2002, virtually decimated the cotton industry along with the entire country. Subsistence crop farming took precedence over industrial farming, and cotton fields were instead planted with maize and other edible produce. From 2002 to 2008, yields had plummeted to around 11,000 tons annually.

Today, the Angolan government, led by President José Eduardo dos Santos, is committed to rebuilding the cotton industry, according to Matos Cardoso, a successful Angolan entrepreneur spearheading revival efforts. Among Cardoso’s many business ventures is FIL, or the International Fair of Luanda, which aims to promote Angola locally and internationally. Cardoso is also the president of the board of ANIFIL-Angola Business Center, a joint venture between FIL and the Agency for International Investment in Angola, created this year.

In Johannesburg recently to launch FIL’s first fashion showcase, Fashion Business Angola, which will take place in the Angolan capital of Luanda this Thursday through Sunday, Cardoso said despite steady levels of growth — 7 percent is forecast for 2011 — some 40 percent of Angola’s 13 million-strong population live below the poverty line. He believes the cotton industry could do more for the Angolan population than petroleum or diamonds.

“The oil industry is capital intensive, not labor intensive,” he said. “The cotton industry, on the other hand, is labor intensive, beginning from cotton farming to ginning to textile manufacture and distribution.”This, he added, “creates employment on several levels, using different levels of skills. The social impact of the cotton industry as a whole is more positive than that of the oil or diamond industry. There are direct and tangible benefits to the population.”

The goal, said Cardoso, is to create a vertically integrated industry, “to transform Angola into a cotton producer, textile manufacturer and apparel exporter.”

Cotton farming is centered in the northern province of Kwanza Sul, where more than 41,000 hectares are devoted to raising cotton. Eventually, industry revival projects will extend to other traditional cotton-producing areas in Malange, Bengo and Benguela provinces.

Heavy South Korean investment helped kick-start the cotton industry, with a $31.4 million loan agreement with South Korean’s Import-Export Bank signed in 2005. The funds were devoted primarily to modernizing the infrastructure, including the construction of irrigation systems and providing programs for technical assistance to cotton producers.

Another project in the pipeline involves industry partnership with South Korea’s Samsung Corp. and Hanil Engineering & Construction. The $30 million dollar project, according to Cardoso, will employ 3,000 people over three years.

Outside of the domestic market, the rest of Africa is Angola’s primary market for cotton and textile exports, with 30 percent of production earmarked for export. The country’s other major trade partners include Portugal, China, South Africa, Brazil and Namibia.

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