07 December 2018 LESSONS Fashion

Multi Country Sustainable Cotton Programme

A man holding a basked of cotton above his head

The Multi Country Sustainable Cotton Programme, implemented by CottonConnect and local implementing partners in China, India and Pakistan was funded by C&A Foundation with an overarching goal of promoting sustainable cotton. The objectives of the programme were 1) provision of technical support on organic farming practices to cotton farmers in India; 2) provision of drip irrigation to smallholder farmers in India; 3) organic cotton seed development in China and India, 4) catalysing the sustainable cotton sector through partnerships (Organic Cotton Roundtable) and 5) transitioning farmers from Responsible Environment Enhanced Livelihoods (REEL) to Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) standards in India, China and Pakistan. This programme comprised of several components of which not all were present across all countries and these various stand-alone components existed prior to 2014 and evolved over time.

The evaluation took place from July 2017 to November 2017. The key results for each programme component are presented below.


Overall, the evaluation reported that the individual programme components promoted sustainable cotton with differing levels of success. In general, those components that worked directly with farmers, i.e., organic cotton farmer training programme, access to drip irrigation, moving farmers from Responsible Environment Enhanced Livelihoods (REEL) to Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) Conversion, were largely successful in meeting their objectives.


Partner: CottonConnect

Investment: USD 6.18 million (C&A Foundation)

Duration: 4 years (2014-17)

Geographic region: China, India and Pakistan


Promotion of Drip Irrigation for Smallholder Farmers (India)

Mobilisation of different actors and instruments led to effective adoption of drip irrigation. The local implementing partner, Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) effectively mobilized extension activities for increasing the adoption of drip irrigation amongst smallholder farmers in the state of Gujarat. Further, the initiative successfully bundled the benefits of government subsidies including ease of availing interest, collateral free loans and flexibilities in loan repayments according to the economic situation of farmers. The selection of AKRSP as partner that had in-depth experience with drip-irrigation was key to success.

Organic Seed Development (China and India)

Performance was mixed due to unrealistic timeframe (1 year) set for organic seed development. While the organic seed development component was relevant to support the growth and sustainability of organic cotton production, the selection of four partners - three in India and one in China - to implement the production has been mixed given that one year is a short time frames and external environmental factors. CottonConnect was also unable to catalyse broader collaboration between other seed initiatives and stakeholders to develop market incentives to support organic seed production.

Conversion of farmers from REEL to BCI standards (China, India and Pakistan)

Responsible Environment Enhanced Livelihoods (REEL) was a three-year agricultural training course, delivered by CottonConnect that promoted sustainable cotton farming practices, similar to the more widely recognized Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) standard. The initiative aimed to convert 11,019 REEL farmers across China, India and Pakistan to BCI standards.

Licensing targets were not met by the programme. In 2015-16 the programme 57% of the target farmers were converted to BCI working across 5 projects, and in 2016-17 and 81% of the target farmers under six projects 2016-17 were converted.

Positive changes such as lower usage of water, higher cotton yield on average were reported amongst BCI farmers.For the REEL to BCI component, farmers that learned and practiced the promoted methods had on average higher cotton yields, lower water usage for cotton, higher profit from cotton cultivation, and sprayed pesticides fewer times when compared to conventional cotton farmers. However, the evaluation found that farmer community institutions had insufficient capacities to support long-term compliance with the BCI standard.

Organic Cotton Roundtable (India)

CottonConnect organized an Organic Cotton Roundtable in March 2014 as the first step towards its vision to define and develop actions that would be implemented together with various roundtable participants and other actors for promotion of sustainable cotton across India.

Outcomes of the roundtable were limited to the development of the Organic & Fair Cotton Secretariat (OFCS):While the goals were ambitious, the immediate output from the roundtable was the creation of a multi-stakeholder Organic & Fair Cotton Secretariat (OFCS) to build on the action points through the involvement of key actors from the industry including CottonConnect, C&A Foundation, Textile Exchange, Fairtrade International and bioRe Foundation. There was a lack of follow up in implementation of key action points emerging from the roundtable.

Organic Cotton Farmer Training Programme (OCFTP) (India and Pakistan)

The Organic Cotton Farmers Training Programme (OCFTP) was the centrepiece of the C&A Foundation investment. The objective of the programme was to provide technical support (in the form of farmers’ training) and financial support (in the form of sponsoring the cost of the organic certification) to cotton farmers to convert from convention to organic cotton production. Besides a small pilot in Pakistan in 2014, CottonConnect implemented this programme through local partners in the four states of India from 2014 for a four year period.

While the relevance of the programme was reported to be good, the selection of appropriate local partners was challenging.The OCFTP was relevant in promoting the organic cotton production in the country and emerging policy focus on sustainable farming in India; besides being aligned to the sustainable cotton vision by C&A Foundation. The evaluation found that CottonConnect was not successful in forging partnerships with the intended organizations as a result of which it had to identify other partners. Further, the selection of the area and farmers in the state of Gujarat was not the most appropriate due to the salinity ingress in the region. Nevertheless, CottonConnect had successfully engaged with a range of stakeholders, such as technical institutes, seed/ input suppliers, certification agencies, testing labs etc., to facilitate conversion to organic cotton. 

The programme design was poor and had set out ambitious targets that were revisited during implementation: The scale of operations and targets envisaged were unrealistic compared to capacities of the team at CottonConnect. This was reflected in program design issues and changes and adjustments in the logframe during implementation. 

The results for change in yield, farming costs and net profit reported to be positive while results for other indicators were lower than the target:The evaluation reported that the OCTFP farmers over the grant period, increased their yield, reduced cotton farming costs and raised their net profit per unit of land that exceeded that of comparison farmers. Over the OCFTP performance period thus far, the average net profit per acrecaught up to, and in the 2016-2017 year, exceeded the average net profit per acre of the Comparison farmers. Other indicators such as formation of Village Organic Cotton Committees and their meetings are limited to information sharing and did not become instruments to facilitative farmer empowerment to help link to markets. Farmers visited during the evaluation reported marked improvements in their land and soil quality and since the farmers recognize the economic and environmental benefits of the organic farming practices, they are expected to continue organic farming.

What did we learn?

C&A Foundation

Realistic timeframes for components such as organic seed development and organic farmer training is vital for achieving expected results: Programmes such as seed development require research and testing over several growing seasons and therefore need longer timeframes and resources to achieve expected results. Organic farmer training is not restricted to moving farmers to organic cultivation but also requires adequate time to develop farmer producer organisations for support and market linkages. This often takes years and not months.

A closer understanding of local context and the capacities of partners is important for setting realistic results expectations: This will prevent undue course corrections midway of log-frame indicators and targets. Although the programme provided important opportunities for the foundation to learn adaptive management.

A holistic approach to programme design is likely to deliver improved results:The programme design missed opportunities to leverage overlap for enhancing benefits in the farmer related initiatives such as drip-irrigation and organic cotton farming / BCI.

Attention to exit strategy and programme sustainability from design and throughout implementation is essential:For sustained promotion of organic/sustainable cotton, the exit strategy must be defined at the early stages of programme development in coordination with partners.

For Partners & Others

Careful selection of appropriate local partners is key to achievement of results:The selection of appropriate programme partners who have long term interest in approaches and results is vital to the programme success. Drip-irrigation component capitalised on the experience and approaches of AKRSP which aligned well with CottonConnect.

Formal mechanisms to capture lessons and facilitating cross learning within implementing partners are important for continuous improvement:Programmes should integrate mechanisms to document experiences and lessons across different initiatives and share them with local partners. Instead of being run in isolation, common touchpoints between partners will facilitate sharing of experiences and programme learning.