What future for minor fibres?
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CTA. 1996. What future for minor fibres? . Spore 65. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/47434
What future for minor fibres?Minor natural fibres such as sisal, kenaf and coir were important exports from ACP countries until low-cost syntheticpolypropylene destroyed their markets almost over-night. Ij the last two decades these natural fibres...
Minor natural fibres such as sisal, kenaf and coir were important exports from ACP countries until low-cost synthetic polypropylene destroyed their markets almost over-night. Ij the last two decades these natural fibres have regained some of their lost markets as oil and its derivatives have increased in price and as environmental concerns have encouraged a return to 'natural' products. Despite this, production of hard fibres remains stagnant. Could these industries be revitalized and their economic potential realized? Asia dominates world markets for hard industrial fibres, and certain countries have won themselves leading positions as suppliers of coir (India and Sri Lanka), jute (India and Bangladesh) and abaca (Philippines). In Africa sisal is the major hard fibre, although smaller quantities of coir (coconut fibre) and kenaf are also produced. Until the 1960s Tanzania, followed by Kenya, led the world market in sisal, with smaller but economically significant quantities grown in Angola, Madagascar, Mauritius and Mozambique. The development of lower-cost rot-proof twine for baling hay and straw in Europe and the US and the trend to the use of plastic sacks was a damaging blow to sisal; large acreages were abandoned. In Tanzania, the sisal production collapsed from 250,000 tonnes to 30,000 tonnes. Mauritius abandoned the crop completely. Coir also suffered competition from synthetics and although never a major product in Africa, it was again Kenya and Tanzania that suffered, in common with many islands with extensive coconut plantations in the Caribbean. and Pacific. Despite this damaging reversal there was a revival of interest in natural fibres in the eighties; as the price of polypropylene increased, natural fibre products were seen to be equal or better value for money Unfortunately, weakened industries were in a poor position to exploit their opportunity. The sisal industry in Tanzania was perhaps typical: nationalization of estates, lack of investment in processing machinery and poor management had eroded output, quality and buyer confidence. Skilled estate workers had drifted away to alternative employment or subsistence farming. A future, or only a past? Natural hard fibres have been used to manufacture a great variety of products from twines and ropes to woven fabrics for bags and carpet backing and for brush bristles, matting, screens and wall hangings. New possibilities include making paper from sisal, geotextiles for stabilizing ground disturbed by civil engineering, using natural fibres for soundproofing cars and developing coir dust as a plant growing medium in place of peat. The tragedy of recent policy decisions in ACP producing countries has been that not even local domestic, industrial and government buyers have supported their own industries but instead have opted for, and paid hard currency for, imported polypropylene twines, plastic bags and sheets, and nylon brush heads. Despite these damaging developments, production of hard fibres in ACP countries is remarkably stable and production is now concentrated in the hands of a relatively small but committed core of growers and processors. These could provide a foundation of expertise and production on which to expand production on which to expand national output of selected fibres, develop value-added processing, stimulate rural industries and provide much sought-after employment. World demand for industrial hard fibres currently exceeds supply and there is considerable potential for using more locally-grown and processed, fibre-based products. Fibre crops are not demanding with regard to fertilizer or pesticide inputs; they provide substantial employment opportunities at harvesting and processing and offer the benefit of substituting for imports paid for in hard currency. But, to be economically successful and sustainable, fibre-based industries require careful planning, quality control and stronger links between research and development and commercial developments. The manufacturers of oil-based competitor products invest in research to improve their products and to develop new uses and new products. They also advertise to promote their products. Natural fibre producers and processors must be prepared to compete in all these activities. There are many examples of successful producers of other commodities which have developed brand awareness and loyalty: Mauritius sugar, Ivorien, Jamaican and Kenyan coffee, Dominica's coconut oil soap and Indian jute. Some have achieved this entirely through commercial endeavour, some with a degree of government assistance; but all have benefited the respective countries in terms of employment, import substitution and export earnings. Many ACP countries could do the same with the minor fibre crops suited to their agro-ecological conditions if long-term political and commercial commitments were made.