Rodolphe Ky didn’t have much to say, at first. He listened intently as other representatives of the West African cotton-producing countries discussed their experiences with the USDA-AMS cotton program.

When Ky, chief of the cotton classification and quality control for Sofitex (Society for Textiles — a government-affiliated organization in Burkina Faso) did speak, he unleashed a torrent of words that an interpreter could barely get down on paper.

“By way of background information, where we come from the cotton industry is not competitive in international markets,” he said. “However, it is important to note that Africa is No. 2 in cotton production to the United States, and one of our assets is that our cotton is of very high quality.

“But still we can’t be competitive in international markets. So our objective is to find means of improvement so we can be more competitive.”

Once Ky “broke the ice,” the representatives of the other West African countries echoed his comments, describing how they wanted to take back what they had learned and help make their cotton grading activities more efficient.

Anyone who has read much about the Doha Round negotiations of the WTO knows the four countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali have been in the center of efforts to force the United States to eliminate its subsidies for cotton producers.

Ever since two Wall Street Journal reporters wrote in August 2002 that the U.S. cotton program was responsible for the impoverishment of cotton farmers in Mali and other African countries, groups like OxFam and the European Union have been demanding the United States “reform” its subsidies.

But in typical American — and U.S. cotton industry — fashion, the U.S. government and the National Cotton Council, while denying those accusations, have been working with governments of the countries to try to help them build their capacity to trade in the international marketplace.

The visit by classing organization officials from the four African countries was the latest in a series of information exchange programs by the NCC, Cotton Council International and USDA.

Representatives of classing operations in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali spent two weeks in the United States, attending Cotton Incorporated’s Engineered Fiber Selection Systems Conference in Memphis, Tenn., and the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s Universal Standards Conference in Bartlett, Tenn., and meeting with cotton program officials at the USDA-AMS cotton classing offices in Bartlett.

They also toured the offices of the National Cotton Council and the farm of Allen Helms, a former American Cotton Producers chairman, near Clarkedale, Ark. USDA’s Cochran Fellowship Program funded their travel.

Ky said the African countries are making small steps toward improving their production and marketing systems, but have a ways to go. “If we tried to list all of the problems we face, we would be here a few hours.”

One of the problems, according to Ky, is that cotton classing in the former “Franc Zone” African countries remains mostly manual. Where high-volume instrument classing machines have been installed, they often don’t work properly.

For many years, French companies had a virtual monopoly on the cotton trade in Central Africa and West Africa. Those companies were the only ones providing classing procedures and instruments in the four countries. Consequently, the four share old, outmoded systems with components that often aren’t found anywhere else.

“So we’re faced with a big problem,” said Ky. “When we received HVI equipment, African technicians were not properly trained on the systems. They were given the instruments and that was it. Only 50 percent of the systems are functioning properly.

“We share common problems with maintenance, skills, and acquiring instruments and parts.”

After two weeks in the United States, the visitors were most surprised by the level of organization and cooperation within the U.S. cotton industry.

“We saw very strong cooperation between the public and private sectors,” said Yessoufou Alamon, director of the Department of Quality Control, Ministry of Agriculture in Benin. “We were also surprised to see how well the classing system is respected by all.”

The four representatives — besides Ky and Alamon, Mansour Nouradine, operator of High-Volume Instruments Systems, Coton Tchad, Chad, and Seidina Diaby, chief of the Division of Classing and Quality Control, CMDT, Mali — were also impressed that the United States would invite other countries to participate in selecting the new universal cotton standards.

“We were surprised that the United States was willing to share its successes with other countries,” said Alamon. “We’ve always heard that the United States was very isolated in the way it dealt with other countries. We found that that is not the case at all. We were very surprised.”

The members of the group also gave special thanks to James L. Knowlton, chief of the standardization and engineering branch for the USDA AMS cotton program in Memphis, and Bill Norman, executive director of the National Cotton Ginners Association, who helped organize the trip for the African representatives.

“All you have shown us this week will have a definite impact on what we’re doing,” said Ky. “What we’ve seen here will help us a lot when we return to our countries.

“While we exchanged ideas with the USDA staff this week, we have come away with one goal. We would like to emulate a system similar to USDA’s in each of our countries.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com