Sisal sector is Dying in Kenya

If there is any crop usually under-looked in Kenya’s agricultural sector though important, then it is Sisal. The crop that had been one of the most consistent principal export commodities of Kenya since the 1914 is now going through slow extinction.

Compared to the colonial years and soon after Kenya attained her independence, Sisal production had gradually gone down in the country to a point where a few Kenyans would count the crop’s importance in the national economic development. Many Kenyans are even oblivious of the existence of the once vibrant Kenya Sisal Board (KSB) charged with the quality control and research on the crop.

The few large-scale sisal farmers who produce 90% of the country’s sisal complain of poor and ‘discouraging’ sisal fiber price in the International market compared to production costs. There is another lot of farmers of this crop. These are the small-scale farmers mostly in the rural areas and have completely lost hope of direct economic gain from the crop.

Though aware of the financial benefit they may derive from the crop, the rural farmers are still reluctant in embarking on serious sisal business with lack of good market being the main setback. With the dormant Kenya Sisal Board still existing, Kenyans, and in particular the few interested farmers would expect the Board to take a leading role in sensitizing the farmers to grow the dying crop and move further in looking for better market for the sisal fiber and other related products.

The Board however says that its role has only been regulatory and therefore revolves around quality control and research on the crop and not the development of Sisal. The latter role has remained in the hands of private developers some of who are getting discouraged by what they term as poor world market on the sisal fiber.

Such slow development in the sisal industry is however blamed on the old (call it out-dated) policy and this has formed a major concern by the stakeholders who now call on the government, through Kipruto arap Kirwa’s Ministry of Agriculture to evaluate and change the ageing policy. If this change is realized, then the devastated farmers would have some hopes of the sector’s current problems addressed thus enhancement of the much needed growth in this industry.

The Kenya Sisal Board Managing Director Joseph Ole Tipape said during an interview in his office that the policy change should equally focus on the promotion of large and small-scale farmers in a bid to encourage the crop growth countrywide. Tipape also noted that the small-scale farmers should be much involved in the crop production to make use of the huge junk of land lying idle in most parts of the country especially the Arid and Semi-arid areas.

He however concurred that the impact of the Board has not been visible to many Kenyans saying that the Board has mainly been offering its services on the plantations and not the small-scale group. The government should therefore look into ways of fully engauging the mostly rural based farmers to use the huge idle lying plots in such areas.

“Future development on the sisal industry should focus at promoting and supporting small-scale farmers in processing, manufacturing and marketing of the fiber and other sisal products,” said Tipape and stressed that the large scale farmers also need not to be forgotten should things move positive for their small-scale colleagues.

Tipape disclosed that sisal fiber alone earned Kenya a total Kshs 733,265,676 as a foreign exchange last year and going by the figures, it would be appropriate for the new government to seriously think on how to rejuvenate the crop farming for both types of farmers. “If you include other exported and locally consumed products, then the figure is higher than that,” affirms the MD.

He however noted that the government need to give more support to the small-scale farmers to encourage them to also realize the economic impact of the crop to the national development. Such support to this group, suggest Tipape, include that of developing efficient decorting machine so as to improve the sisal fiber quality which will in return improve the competitiveness of the small-scale fiber in the world market.

The quality of the fiber from the ruarl areas have been of low standard due to the use of the manual decortation as opposed to those from the large scale farmers or the developed countries which use machine to perform the duty. Brazil, the world’s largest sisal producer, depends on the small-scale farmers to maintain the global title in the sisal industry.

“The world market is mainly controlled by the quality of the fiber and it is therefore important for the farmers to produce high class fiber to attract the international buyers,” says Tipape adding that the quality of the exported fiber and other sisal products was a major concern of his board which has an inspectorate unit in Mombasa to ensure that Kenya’s exports were of recommended quality.

Apart from the direct economic gain from the crop, environmentalists even see it in a more wider perspective of revitilizing environmental degradation which later result into food scarcity. Environmentalist Peter Okoth Mireri believes that the crop has a lot to do with the country’s food security especially in the rural areas as it prevents the to and rich soil from being carried away by the running waters.

Giving examples, Mireri who is a project officer with an environmental Organization ,OSIENALA (Friends of Lake Victoria) cited Gwassi area of Suba district which has high number of emerging gullies as a result of sisal depletion in the area once known for high production of the crop.

“The rate of erosion in the area has led to another environmental problem of siltation in Lake Victoria and this has a double effect on food availability as the top soil is swept away leaving the farmer with the normally poor soil,” says Mireri who categorizes Sisal as one of the endagered species in the country.

Nyanza provincial crops officer Tsilla Magut says that there is urgent need by all the authorities and the KSB to sensitize the public especially those in the ASAL areas to seriously venture into sisal farming as the crop is drought tolerant and needs less input. “The fact that the crop can grow in harsh conditions and is normally pest resistant, is advantage that people in the Arid and Semi-arid areas have and should therefore be enticed to grow sisal in such areas,” she said.

A one time Kisumu based sisal fiber buyer Balbir Singh Sadhu however believes that until such a time that all the concerned authorities including the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) came together to handle the market aspect, the sisal industry would still not make much improvement as would be expected. The direct financial benefit aside, the said authorities need to recognize the usefulness of this forgotten crop, by most importantly, changing the old policy of this Industrial crop.

Joseph Ojwang is a free-lance journalist. He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from Kenya, Africa.