En route for «white gold»
Jeans, cotton buds and bank notes: we cannot imagine life without cotton and the products that are made out of this plant. Some 40% of the world’s textile production use cotton, making it one of the most important fibres on the world market. A large proportion of the raw material comes from Central Asia and travels via the old Silk road trade routes out into the wide world.
White as far as the eye can see: when cotton plants start to flower in autumn, thick soft cotton wool balls spill out of the seed capsules on this brown bush that usually looks straggly and dry. Ideal conditions for cultivating this member of the mallow family are to be found in the what is termed the cotton belt around the equator between around 35°S and 45°N, where the climate ranges from subtropical to tropical.
Cotton grows on more than approximately 33 million ha in over 70 countries. This equates to roughly the size of Germany. Turkmenistan, which cultivates over 550,000 ha of cotton, is one of the world’s top ten cotton producers. Approximately 1 million t of this fibre are harvested from the country’s cotton fields every year. The yield in record year 2010 actually topped the 1.2 million t mark. Production of the cotton yarn that is spun from the fibres has increased more than threefold over the past 15 years. Some three dozen cotton factories in Turkmenistan are in use all year round. In the meantime, the greater part of the cotton is processed in the country and the export of this raw material remains an important pillar of the Turkmenistan economy.
The international logistics service provider Militzer & Münch (M&M), which has locations in Turkmenistan’s capital Asgabat, as well as in Turkmenbasi and Balkanabat, is an experienced transporter of cotton from that country. Since the national subsidiary, M&M Militzer & Münch Turkmenistan Ltd, was established nearly 20 years ago, the firm has been active in serving the needs of «white gold», a term that, because of its great significance, is used for cotton in countries that produce this fibre. Whilst projects with other products – such as aluminium for example – run throughout the year, Militzer & Münch Turkmenistan’s activities in the cotton sector begin after the plants have flowered. Work for the team starts in October and lasts until around April.
Delicate goods – careful handling
The 35 M&M team members coordinate and check the entire loading and transport processes. The start of the service is determined with the customer and ends with the delivery of the goods at their destination. At the points of dispatch, Militzer & Münch’s employees complete the requisite formalities and monitor the loads. The clients – international cotton traders, who purchase the commodity straight from the fields – receive daily status reports on the location of their shipments. The service provider works with reliable partners who provide the transport services.
Conditions affect quality
Cotton is a demanding crop. The weather conditions that the cotton plants are subject to during their growth have a decisive effect on the fibres’ quality. The plants are extremely thirsty in the vegetation phase and irrigation is usually required. However, the plants need a lot of sunshine and dry conditions when flowering. A lack of water, frost and rotting can substantially reduce the harvest.
Kostas Sandalcidis, Militzer & Münch’s managing director Middle East and Central Asia, is well aware that the reigning conditions during the transport phase can also influence the quality. He pointed out, «the compressed cotton is specially packed and we take great care to ensure that the bales are kept clean. On top of that, the cotton has to be stored and transported in a dry state to avoid mould. This, in turn, makes it rather inflammable.»
The cotton is mainly transported overland by truck or train. The vehicles leaving Turkmenistan head for certain seaports that have been picked out for forwarding the goods. Until a few years ago, most of the cotton was handled in Iran, but the difficult political situation in that country required an alternative solution. Today, the ports in Mersin (Turkey) and Riga (Latvia) have developed into important hubs for cotton transport. The goods are put into intermediate storage in those locations before being stuffed into containers and loaded onto ships. The cotton then starts its journey across the world’s seas to its end recipients, who are predominantly fabric and textile producers in China, Europe and the USA. The Militzer & Münch Turkmenistan team used this road/rail/sea solution to transport a volume of about 24,000 t of cotton in over 1,000 journeys in 2012.
In Tadzhikistan cotton is also one of the most important export products, and therefore among the main commodities to be transported. When the volume of the 2012 cotton harvest was almost double that of the preceding year, M&M was able to post record figures in the country to the north of the Hindu Kush mountain range. In a mere four and a half months the national subsidiary M&M Militzer & Münch Tajikistan LLC forwarded 550 truck loads of cotton, nearly twice as many as in the preceding year.
The firm opened an almost 5,000 sqm cotton cross-docking hall last year. This facility takes up the increased volumes, and also simplifies and accelerates the export process. The new cotton hub is located in Sarband in southern Tadzhikistan. Militzer & Münch stores the goods there before consolidating them and transporting them abroad for further processing. The cotton is generally conveyed to the Turkish port city Mersin, where the fibre begins its trip overseas.
Like Turkmenistan and Tadzhikistan, Uzbekistan is also in the cotton belt. The landlocked country, which grows 5% of the global volume, is among the world’s top ten cotton producers and actually ahead of Turkmenistan. Today, around 30% of Uzbekistan’s gross domestic product comes from agriculture and cotton is grown on approximately half of the area that is suitable for cultivation. Over and above this, the white gold is a central element of the country’s culture. Cotton, together with wheat, an equally important crop, frame the Uzbek coat of arms. Stylised images of these plants decorate walls, houses and places of interest in the country.
M&M has been represented in Uzbekistan since 1993, shortly after the country became independent. Right from the start the firm was mainly involved the cotton export sector. The national subsidiary swiftly augmented its range of services and is now primarily a major player in the heavylift and project logistics segment.
Tracing the Silk Road
As in Turkmenistan and Tadzhikistan, the transport of goods in Uzbekistan focuses on the Silk Road’s old routes that already allowed economic trading to take place between Asia and Europe both in ancient times and in the Middle Ages. Uzbekistan, however, is special. That nation, along with Liechtenstein, is the only landlocked country in the world that is surrounded by other landlocked states – this poses a challenge for the import/export industry. Two national borders have to be crossed in order to transport goods from Uzbekistan to a port on the open sea. In 2009, the Uzbek government declared that the modernisation and development of the infrastructure was to be a political priority, in order to support the transport and logistics sector. Since then new railway lines have been built and roads have been paved – investments that have benefited Militzer & Münch as well.