Trade Information Brief: Fibre

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Sisal is by no means a new crop. It has been farmed for its fibre for over a century. In fact it was in Africa where the crop became a internationally traded commodity, and at one stage it was a leading export of Tanzania and later Kenya. The sisal industry flourished in Africa be- cause the crop was particularly suited to being grown in the conditions and climate that prevail here, but also because it was a very labour-intensive crop that required large amounts of cheap labour to harvest it. As production levels grew, so the sisal industry in these countries achieved certain critical levels of development and economies of scale, and it made little sense to grow the crop elsewhere. Indeed entire regions in Tanzania and Kenya developed around the industry, as did port and transport facilities.

But in the space of a few years, and with the introduction of synthetic fibres (produced from petroleum), sisal lost a vast chunk of its market share. The competition from synthetics as a substitute and the havoc it wreaked on the natural fibres market was compounded by country-specific situations (like the nationalisation of the farms in Tanzania and Mexico – another large producer), and the over-reliance of the sisal industry on only a few end products. Most sisal went into the production of agricultural twine (binder and baler twine) and various ropes and cordage. Critically the industry never invested enough research into alternative products, new production techniques, and new markets, and in the face of aggressive marketing from the large petroleum companies (and to a lesser extent forestry plantations – sisal can be used in paper manufacturing), sisal’s market for twine and rope dwindled over the years.
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