Kitui farmers fight food shortage, dry spells with sisal farming

Smallholder farmers in Kitui West District are insulating themselves from failed rains with sisal farming, which has not only increased household incomes, but opened up a whole value addition market, even as global shortage of the sisals bite.

Sisal was once the world’s main raw material for agricultural twine and sacks, but as global buyers turned to polypropylene and synthetic alternatives, the sisal market collapsed, leaving areas such as Kabati division of Kitui West District, using the plant only to mark boundaries and for fencing.

But the plant has now risen afresh as a raw material for producers seeking natural and durable alternatives to plastics. In particular, it has experienced a resurgence in the world carpet industry, with the proportion of carpeting made from sisal having more than doubled in recent years, to more than one-in-ten of all carpets bought worldwide. Sisal is also now being used by the global paper industry, where its added strength is a bonus in papers with high volumes of recycled content.

It’s a bounce back that last month saw the Tanzanian sisal board report global sisal demand running at 230,000 tonnes a year, against supply of just 130,000 tonnes, causing a shortage that has seen global sisal prices rise to $1500 a tonne.

At the same time, in Kabati, sisal has continued to thrive, unaffected by the harsh climate and drought that has knocked out many other crops. Made up of a rosette of spear shaped leaves about 1.5 to 2 metres tall, sisal has a 7 to 10-year life span and produces 200-500 usable leaves, each leaf containing around 1,000 fibres.

Women are now forming themselves in groups to produce large quantities of the sisal fibres, driven by the scale of the demand from local merchants.

Over the last five years, the volume of sisal production in Kenya has risen by 40 per cent - from 25,009 tonnes in 2005 to 35,119 tonnes in 2010 - with Sisal Estates like Rea Vipingo and Voi Sisal Estate producing four-fifths of the output and smallholders the other one-fifth.

However, demand is still running ahead of supply. Currently, a kilo of sisal fibre sells at between Sh30 and Sh32 in local markets, but due to the rudimentary production methods one farmer can only manage to produce a maximum of ten kilos a day. However in a group, where tasks are delegated, farmers are managing to produce as much as 100 kilos daily.

The fibre is extracted by a process known as decortications, where the leaves are crushed and beaten with blunt knives so that only the fibres remain as the outer green layer is evenly removed.

The improvised machine used for decortications in Kibati is made of two blunt knives placed on tree stumps facing each other. The traders first scan a canopy of sisal plants to choose the best leaves, from which they then meticulously remove the sharp thorns, being cautious to avoid the poisonous sisal leaves.

The leaves are then dissected into several pieces that are dried in the sun for 30 minutes to lessen the moisture content. "If you fail to dry them, most of the fibre would be wasted, since it will come off together with the outer layer,” said Mueni, one of the women traders specializing in sisal fibres. The pulp which is left behind is dried and used as livestock feed or compost manure.

Tony Mwanza, a merchant at the Kabati Market buoyed by the overwhelming demand for sisal fibre, has put prices up by an extra Sh2 a kilo in an effort to encourage farmers to produce more.

Most of the creamy white sisal fibres that Mwanza delivers find their way to foreign countries as exports. Over 80 per cent of the sisal produced in Kenya is currently being exported, primarily to Spain, Morocco, Portugal and Saudi Arabia.

As well as the surging demand for sisal in carpeting and paper, it is also enjoying rising demand as a raw material for industrial scratching brushes, shopping bags and clothing, valued for its strength, durability, ability to stretch and resistance to deterioration in salt water, as well as for its ‘eco; credentials as a natural product.

Moreover, Kenya is among the world’s top five producers of the fibre, alongside Brazil, China, Mexico, and Tanzania.

For the women traders of Kabati this was a status that had little meaning until recently. But as they turn to commercializing the plant, propagating it by using the small bulbs at the leaf axil or by suckers growing around the plant, being a top producer to a market in short supply is suddenly looking like a sweet place to be.