It is cultivated in many rural communities on small-scale to make ropes, mats and mark land boundaries.
Sisal, however, is in high demand in international market, where it is fetching good prices as it is used in making materials for cars, furniture, plastic and paper products.
The growing popularity of the crop in the export market has lured farmers in Homa Bay and Migori counties into the trade. Reuben Okang’a is one of the farmers engaged in sisal farming for export market.
“I started growing and later exporting sisal fibre in 2012,” recounts the former creative director at an advertising firm in Nairobi. “But the hardest part was getting a licence to start exportation.” Okang’a grows sisal on 40 acres in Sori, Migori County.
As a creative director and a designer at the company, Okang’a used to travel to Eastern region to train women on how to improve the quality of Kiondo baskets, which were being sold to tourists.
Okang’a later started a website to market the sisal fibre and its by-products.
Soon, clients from Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Ghana started making inquiries on whether Okang’a was in a position to supply them with sisal fibre. With prospect of his business growing, the 47-year-old resigned from his job to start the business.
“I went back home in Sori, Migori County to assess the impact of sisal cultivation with the assistance of Kenya Sisal Board (KSB). I realised that Homa Bay could produce 90 tonnes of sisal fibre monthly. My clients only needed 20 at the time I started.”
Okang’a later set up the company Oba Kunta African Exports through which he has contracted over 2,000 farmers and processes sisal into fibre for export.
“It was not easy to form the company. My wife, Betty Ooko, a nurse was an understanding woman. She allowed me to sell most of the family’s property to start the business.”
He raised Sh7 million from the property that included land. After building a sisal factory and contracting 2,000 sisal farmers to get the business going, he was given a licence to export sisal fibre by KSB.
Sisal fibre is extracted by a process known as decortication, where the leaves are crushed and compressed by a rotating wheel set with blunt knives so that only the fibres remain as the outer green layer is removed.
Okang’a has six decorticator machines at his factory, which cost him Sh2.4 million.
He has also procured two brushing machines, a tractor, two twinners, one hand operated twinning machine, two brushing machines and one baler.
Spinning services involve conversion of sisal fibre into yarns and twines. Gilfreight Limited warehouses and ships the sisal fibre on behalf of Okang’a. Sisal takes about two to three years to mature and can be harvested for between 10 and 20 years.
“The market for sisal fibre is widening and is overwhelming. Currently I export 27 tonnes per month, but we have a demand of 120 tonnes. The production is still low given that most of the fibre produced locally does not meet international standards,” says Okang’a, who exports the fibre to Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, and Northern Sudan via Mombasa port.
A tonne of sisal fibre is about $1,550. He says the plant, which is drought resistant is doing well in Migori.
Although less appreciated, he believes the value of sisal stands out among the plants that could be found in arid and semi-arid lands.
While rising need for synthetic fibre has weakened demand for sisal in its traditional uses, Okang’a says new need for natural fibre is expanding.
According to him, a sisal plant has a value of six dollars (Sh522). Farmers are paid Sh3,000 per acre.
The company runs Sisal Small Holder Initiative in Kenya’s Agriculture (SSHIKA), through which Oba Kunta African Exports buys sisal leaves from farmers, their cooperatives and agents.
Crops like maize, cow peas, beans and even sorghum have withered in many parts of Migori and Homa Bay counties. This means that with good rains, food and fibre can be produced side-by-side. But if the rains fail, farmers still can earn income from sisal.
“The company offers financial and technical assistance to farmers, encouraging them to intercrop maize and beans, alongside planting sisal,” says Betty, who is a director at the company.
Each day, the company processes 67,500 leaves of sisal. The production now stands at 20 tonnes per month.
“Our dream is to turn Homa Bay and Migori counties into a sisal belt and encourage commercial cultivation of sisal as a cash crop,” she says.
According to KSB, sisal has a promising future because of the new uses of natural fibre.
“The global demand now stands at 230,000 tonnes against the supply of about 130,000 tonnes,” states KSB’s 2012 report.
Brazil is currently the world’s largest producer of sisal. Kenya is second with farms such Rea Vipingo, Wriggleworths, Majani Mingi and Athinai leading.
HOW TO EXPORT SISAL
For one to export sisal, they must meet quality standards set by Kenya Sisal Board (KSB).
One exports through an agent registered by the board. The main agent is Gil Freight Limited, a clearing and forwarding company.
Naomi Kamau, the managing director of KSB, says Kenya exports three grades of sisal fibre namely the Under Grade Fibre, popularly known as UGF, Substandard Under Grade also known as SSUG and Unwashed Hand Decorticated Fibre, also known as UHDF.
“The fibre has to meet quality standards before we allow them out of the country,” says Naomi.
She says anyone can be allowed to export sisal fibre so long as they have at least 27 tonnes.
“We encourage farmers to grow sisal because of its high demand. There is a huge deficit because the kind of fibre we produce does not match the standards required. This makes it difficult for us to export,” she says.
UG is white and has low moisture content, at 3 per cent. It is highly preferred by countries like Pakistan, which use it for making gypsum board and plaster of interiors.
Farmer Reuben Okang’a says KSB plays an important role in exporting the produce as it’s the only board authorised to issue licences.
“KSB inspects every single fibre before it leaves the country.” After inspection, he is linked to Gil Freight.
“We pay a small percentage to both KSB and Gil freight. It’s a negotiable amount,” he says.
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