THE diversified use of sisal products and by-products domestically and abroad seems to have soothed the pains of struggling small-scale producers of the cash crop, giving hopes for high returns on their capital, time and labour investments.
Traditionally, sisal was mostly used for production of agricultural twines, ropes, cordage, sacks, bags and carpets. But, the Ifakara Health Institute's (IHI) recent impressive research findings that sisal sacking materials could protect outdoor mosquito bites are indeed good news to sisal growers across the country.
IHI Research Scientist Nico Govella told President Jakaya Kikwete during his recent tour of the research facility that the initial studies had proved the efficacy of the sisal strips against outdoor biting by Anopheles arabiensis mosquitoes.
The sisal strips are used to make a flower pot or any other souvenir and once treated with a spatial repellent known as transfluthrin and placed in the living room or outdoors, those sitting within a radius of two metres would be 100 per cent safe from mosquito bites.
The new discovery is not only hygienically beneficial to all Tanzanians but also an economic incentive to farmers to increase sisal production to meet the soaring demand that would result into increased incomes and improved living standards. The Tanzania Sisal Board (TSB) statistics show that the country has the potential to produce about 500,000 tonnes annually.
But, the country potential can be fully exploited only through increased productivity and reviving existing estates to their full productive capacity. Last year, Tanzania produced 38,500 tonnes of sisal, becoming number two after Brazil which produced about 52,000 tonnes.
Sisal production is a source of livelihood to between 300 and 400 families that cultivate an average of 15 hectares and earn 500 US dollars (800,000/-) monthly. Following the increasing demand as a result of use diversification, sisal production has almost doubled to 35,000 metric tonnes compared to about 15,000 metric tonnes produced in four years ago, TSB data show.
The regulatory board predicts that production will reach 40,000 metric tonnes in the next three year time. Katani Limited Managing Director, Mr Salum Shamte said in an interview recently that production of alternative value added products from sisal such as biogas, bio fertilizers, biofuel, industrial alcohols, pulp for paper, buffing cloth and composites was fuelling demand for the cash crop.
The sisal fibre is composite applications in the automotive and construction. Huge demand is likely to develop as sisal fibre is superior to other natural fibres particularly in the use for paper making, thanks to its higher elastic modulus, impact strength and moderate tensile flexion strengths.
Furthermore, the utilization of sisal fibre woven products like carpets and matting has remained unchanged; use of the fibre in buffing cloth is an opportunity for which there is a demand in Far Eastern countries like China.
"There is great need for the sisal industry to continue diversifying its end uses in order to become viable and relevant in today's competitive business environment," noted Mr Shamte.
Despite fluctuations during economic crisis, he said sisal prices in the world market has been stable and promising for increased income generations to the small scale growers for improved livelihood and the efforts to alleviate poverty.
The average sisal price in the world market ranges between 1,200 and 1,500 US dollars per tonne, even at times of bumper harvests in Brazil, China and Kenya which are among the world leading sisal producers.
Sisal production declined between the 1980s and 1990s due to intensifying competition from synthetic and a substantial price decline in the world market. However, with technological advances and a big demand for sisal, production soared to an annual production of about 30,000 tonnes per year between 2000 and 2008.
Similarly, in the last ten years, the prices headed north and for the common grade (UG), the price rose by almost 90 per cent to 1,200 US dollars in 2011, compared to 636 US dollars in the preceding year.
One of the challenges that need to be addressed is that despite having 100 years of experience in the sisal industry, most sisal producers in the country still export more fibre than fibre products.