Sisal farming: Is it a viable
cash crop for arid areas?
Overgrown sisal plants with long poles at the centre have always been used to demarcate land boundaries in semi-arid of Kitui County.
The sisal plants are evergreen with-standing the severest drought conditions. However they are not wide-spread or in plantations. The impending dry season where food crops have withered due to erratic rains has invited the residents to fall back to the sisal plant to get an alternative source of money.
In addition to marking the boundaries and making fences, individual house-holds have resumed extraction of sisal strands for commercial purposes to earn a livelihood.
In Kitui West district where sisal is aplenty, women who have taken time off from farming due to drought are spending more time in sisal processing.
Elizabeth Mwende is one such resident who has refurbished her traditional implement locally called Kikuni to extract the strands and sell to the local market. ”I pro-duce an average of three kilograms per day and sell the produce to middlemen who sell the bulk produce to manufacturers of sisal bags,” says Mwende.
The 42 year-old mother of four says she also makes baskets for her own use or for sale and the income is used to buy food and educational needs of her children.
Mwende says that she has been processing the sisal since she was child and underscores the importance of the plant as an alter-native income source during hard times. A kilogram of the sisal cords is sold at sh.30 to Kabati Sisal Supplies, a firm that trans-ports the sisal to bag and cordage firms in Juja and Nairobi .
Mwende’s fence of her Kauwi village home has plenty of sisal whose mature leaves she ex-pertly cuts after removing the thorn at the end. After detaching the leaves from the main plant, she splits the broad leaf into two and further forms three pieces from each split sections but leaving the con-ver-gence slim end intact. ”I have to hold the intact end with a piece of cloth to en-sure the sap does not destroy my palm or enter into the nails,’ says Mwende adding that the sap causes irritating itching. Her home reflects multiple uses of sisal where its long poles are split and used to construct a granary. The cowshed is made of the poles while the entrance to the home has poles that are pulled sideways to enter the homestead. The leaves harvested from the plant are allowed to dry for one hour to lose their water con-tent and allow better ex-traction where more strands are not lost during the process.
What are the environmental advantages of the sisal plant and its products? Rodgers Kaleve, a local resident points out that the plant is a deterrent for soil erosion during rainy sea-son and also prevents livestock from straying to farmlands. ”A farmer does not need to erect a barbed wire fence when sisal is there because it has thorns that pre-vent animals from crossing borders of their paddocks,” says Kaleve. He says that sisal plants were many three decades ago but were over-har-vested in mid-1980s and 1994 when there was a countrywide famine.
Kaleve discloses that during the time, processors were stealing sisal at night while those who did not know how to ex-tract the cords harvested the leaves for sale. The plant is drought-resistant, is not labour-intensive and requires no fertilizers or pesticides to mature, he says.
The remnants of the extraction process are dried and used as animal feed and can also be used for mulching in farms. To en-sure the plant grows well, it has to be planted during the dry season because when the soil is wet, the young plants tend to rot and die illustrating its suitability to the semi-arid areas.
Reaping more gains from the sisal plant has forced 25 women to form a group in Kitui West district that exclusively deals with products made from the plant.
Alice Mwithi, the treasurer of Kitui Deaf Women Group says that the members normally work on individual basis but bring their products for sale through the group. ”We make woven and corded ropes which we sell in Matuu market where live-stock keepers use them to tether their animals,” says Ms. Mwithi.
To instill a sense of gain, the members who meet once in a month use the proceeds from the sisal ropes for a merry-go-round loan scheme, says the treasurer. She says that the ropes range in price from sh.10 to sh.30 and avers that the money generated and boosted by the merry-go-round has enabled them take care of their families.
”Sisal work requires less energy and more concentration and People living With HIV/Aids (PLWHAs) have taken up the craft to earn a decent income,” says Ms. Mwithi.
Kabati Sisal Supplies proprietor Daniel Kyatha de-scribes how he buys sisal strands from individual farmers who bring the product to his depots at Kabati and Mutanda towns.
Kyatha says that he had been unemployed until 2002 when he decided to venture into the business after recalling how his father Kyatha Nzau prospered in the business. ”My father had a machine to process the sisal into strands and he only used to buy the raw product,” says the 35 year-old businessman.
Kyatha who also doubles up as a cereals trader says he does not consider buying a machine economical because the sisal supply is not like in the 1970s and people only take up the trade during drought.
He purchases one kilo of processed cords at sh.30 and later sells the product Sh. 37. A collection lorry transports the product to the Kabati depot where a larger lorry ferries the cargo.
The produce is taken to Premier Bag and Cordage Company at Juja and at times to Taita Estates Company in Nairobi. ”The machine at Juja is old and can process our product easily but at Taita Estates, the machines are modern and require more fine sisal strands,” says Kyatha.
The quality issue has been complicated by entry of Tanzania sisal suppliers who are preferred by Taita Estates limiting the market outlet to one buyer in Juja, he points out. Are there other challenges facing the small sub-sector that has cushioned wananchi against vagaries of drought in the semi-arid area?
According to the sisal trader, the market is ready and the only problem is delayed payments that take up to two months. He says it only a coping mechanism, and the moment rains come, small-scale suppliers stop processing and concentrate on farming forcing him to revert to the cereals business.
National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) officer in Kitui West Pius Kasusya says that sisal bags are recommended because they are organic and provide ventilation.
He says that NEMA recommends usage of sisal bags for products that take longer time in storage unlike bags made from synthetic material.Kasusya cites storage of food by National Cereals and Pro-duce Board (NCPB) and trans-port of tea and coffee that proves the importance of sisal bags.
”The sisal bags allow aeration in the food stored in bulk but the nylon bags inhibit air circulation,” says the NEMA official. He points out that the bio-degradable nature of the sisal products could assist in reducing environmental waste caused by plastic bags that do not rot after use. NCPB Kitui depot manager Obadiah Mbevi says that 3 million bags are usually required by the organization per season forcing importation of the sisal bags.
Mbevi discloses that the sisal bags are recommended because of durability and averting poisoning in cereals stored in nylon bags. ”When farmers bring their food in nylon bags we have to transfer the cereals to a sisal bag as a standard measure,” says Mbevi.
A spot-check reveals that one unit of a sisal bag costs up to sh.380 but a nylon bag goes for as low as sh.20. Although sisal is not commercially planted in plantations in Kitui County, its crucial role in pro-viding an al-ter-native income base during drought has proven it needs to be explored further.
Famine, water scarcity, animal deaths and lack of enthusiasm in planting drought-tolerant crops has made the drought issue complex as the phenomenon recurs on regular basis. George Ngige, the team leader of Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSSG) that made filed visits in the region last week said sisal processing was an efficient way of alternative livelihood source.
The multiple uses of the sisal plant and its by-products has proven that innovations can still be found within all areas to starve off hardships during drought.
Cassava edges its
way back to the farms
By a Special Correspondent.
Cassava menu is replacing usual maize flour foods in most families in the nine districts of Makueni County.
With global climate change taking place, resulting to reduced rainfall especially in arid and semi arid areas, residents of Ukambani region have been forced to adopt to new foods in line with crops that conforms to the changing climate.
Farmers in these region have in recent past years being growing drought resistant crops that can survive at harsh climatic conditions. And there-fore, more farming of cassava crops is replacing maize and has been witnessed in lowland of Makueni county.
Farm Concern International, a non governmental Organization has in recent time been helping to set up a cassava processing unit in Mbuvo location in Kitise Division of Kathonzweni district in respond to increased attention on cassava farming.
The NGO’s project manager mr kennedy Okech noted that the pro-cessing unity would benefit thou-sands of small scale farmers engaging in cassava farming in the Kathonzweni and entire Makueni county. Mr Okech who spoke to over 460 cassava farmers from Mbuvo Commer-cial Village when he handed over a mobile cassava chipper machine valued at ksh 185,000 and donated by the NGO to the farmers, described cassava as ‘poverty and drought fighter’
The donation of the chipper machine to Mbuvo cassava village processing project is part of the Farm Concern International interventions to support small holders’ farmers in east and central Africa aimed at promoting the cassava production.
Scientists refer cassava as ‘survivor crop’, a typical tropical plant that can be grown where annual rainfall is as low as 500mm, and has ability to stand prolonged periods of drought.
The Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] points out unique cultivation characteristics and practices of cassava, saying it can be grown on soils of relatively low fertility.
The FAO adds that cassava can also produce an economic crop on soils so depleted by repeated cultivation that they are unsuitable for other crops and that during dry seasons, in tropical cassava has a period of dormancy and growth resumes when rains begin. The project manager promised a donation of setting up cassava driers to the Mbuvo farmers at farm levels to enable for proper storage of the chipped cassava before being transported to the processing unit. He said that Farm Concern International will link the Mbuvo Commercial Village farmers to buyers in efforts of transforming them into commercialized cassava farming, along side increasing food security in the semi arid region.
‘Our intentions is to graduate cassava to a mainstream commercial crop for its wider products which includes starch processing, flour[human food], animal feeds, cassava chips, glue processing and snacks such as crips.
He encouraged the local farmers to engage into mass production of cassava saying that it conforms to local climate and could help change their livelihood in addressing their food security.
Chairman of the Mbuvo Commercial Village Mr. Joseph Masyuki disclosed that Kenya Agricultural Research Institute [KARI] which also supports the organization will donate to them a cassava milling machine. “We have 15 acreages under cassava cultivation planted last November –December rain season and we intent to increase its cultivation to 600 acreage by the end of the year” the chairman said.
He noted that KARI sold 32,315 of a new variety of cassava cuttings to the farmers at subsidized prices and the farmers’ were optimistic of high yields soon.