Ezekiel Nzue is a sisal farmer showing a sisal fibre at Nairobi International Trade Fair

Forgotten sisal farming a lucrative endeavour with good returns

With the ravaging climate change menace world over, one of the crops that can withstand the harsh conditions and earn growers some tidy sum is sisal, yet many farmers in Kenya do not grow the rich-in-fibre crop.

According to a 2018 research by Aaron Mwaniki for South Eastern Kenya University (SEKU) on Factors Affecting Sisal Cultivation and Adoption in Kiomo Division, Kitui County, global sisal cultivation has been declining and in Kenya, for instance, production has been on a decline since 1960.

As a result, says the research, sisal plantations are being replaced by other crops, with fiber industries turning to synthetic fibers, which have been proven to be environmentally unfriendly. Moreover, most lands in arid and semi-arid areas, which are not fertile, go to waste.

Currently, figures by the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) indicate that the sub sector supports about 30,000 farmers, though it can support over 150,000 farmers.

Sisal is a drought-resistant crop that is primarily cultivated in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs). It thrives in conditions where food crops struggle to thrive and in fields left fallow for a while.

Demand and uses

Despite threats from synthetic materials like nylon and manila, sisal is making a remarkable comeback, fueled by growing eco-consciousness. This resurgence has led to the exploration of diverse applications.

In Tanzania, there’s an interest in using sisal waste for electricity generation.

Traditionally, sisal found use in paper, ropes, and carpets. With modern technology, sisal fiber is harnessed for medical drug production and employed in the automotive industry for seat cushions, and in the clothing sector for winter jacket blends. Furniture manufacturers use the product for mattresses, sofas, and seat cushions.

In construction, sisal is increasingly adopted as a bonding material to reinforce cement mortar. In agriculture, sisal biomass contributes to bio-fertiliser and organic inputs for animal feed production.

China is now the world’s top sisal producer, benefiting from government support and expanding its role in global manufacturing.

A sisal decorticator machine

Economics

Planted within a spacing of 12ft by 3ft, an acre of sisal can accommodate up to 1,210 plants with each plant producing 200-250 leaves per harvest.

Harvesting of leaf should be done at most two to three times a year per plant depending on variety and age. A typical plant will produce 200-250 commercially usable leaves per harvest per year (hybrid varieties up to 400-450 leaves). 

Leaf cutting starts about two to three years after planting the crop, thereafter, harvesting will continue for a period of 8-15 years depending on variety.

Plants that are ready for cutting usually have a height of 1.25m with at least 60 leaves to start with. The general practice is to cut all leaves below those which point upwards at an angle of about 45 degree and at least longer than 60cm.

Currently a bundle of 27 sisal leaves fetches between Ksh12 to Ksh15 depending on the variety and market demand. Therefore, if a plant produces 200 leaves (using the lower figures) per harvest, you can expect 200 leaves x 1210 plants per acre to produce 242,000 leaves. This in bundles of 27 leaves makes about 8,963 bundles per harvest. Thus, 8,963 bundles x Ksh12 per bundles would earn about Ksh107,556 per harvest. This you can x 2 or 3 harvests.

Each leaf of sisal produces 1,000-1,200 fiber bundles.

Promoting sisal production

With the low production situation versus, the potential good returns, AFA has been promoting sisal production in the country. The farmers who are also still growing the crop are beginning to take the venture more seriously.

According to figures by AFA, sisal exports in 2017, earned the country Ksh2 billion, which jumped to Ksh3.72 billion in 2019.

Case study

Mr Ezekiel Nzue is a sisal farmer from Machakos County, who also extracts the crop’s fibre using a decorticator machine after training by AFA.

The farmer started as a casual labourer on a sisal farm before learning about AFA’s search for willing individuals to be trained.

“I first met AFA officials in 2015 at an agricultural show in Nakuru. I was recruited as machine operator, given the experience I had in operating a decorticator machine,” he says, adding that he would later be given the sisal fibre extractor machine to operate everywhere the Authority had a field day training.

Soon, he would buy his own machine in 2016 at Ksh125,000, after gaining more experience in sisal farming, fibre extraction, and market linkages from AFA.

Today, Nzue is a happy farmer in his new-found venture where, using the mobile machine, he extracts up to 1000 kilos of sisal fibers a day. He buys some of the sisal and gets the rest from his farm.

“I no longer depend on casual labour since this business can earn me enough for my family expenses including school fees, which I used to struggle with before,” he says, adding that he currently has 600 sisal plants of which 45 are mature and ready for harvesting. 

Offering direct market to other farmers

Nzue works with farmers from Machakos and Makueni counties where he buys about 30 leaves at Ksh10 from the growers. He then extracts the fibers and sells them to companies in Nairobi for between Ksh130-150, thus offering direct market to fellow farmers while making a profit.

“I have also recruited five young men to help with operating the machine, sun dry the fibers and load them for market,” he says.

The farmer points out that the demand for fibers is huge and he is looking for 100 more farmers with two to three acres of land from other regions such as Makueni to contract.

“In a week, a serious farmer with one acre piece of plot can earn up to Ksh21,000,” he says adding that an acre can yield about 12 tonnes sisal leaves per harvest depending on the variety and agronomical practices.

Some of the challenges he now experiences are the high costs of fuel and having only a few farmers interested in farming the crop.

“I used to buy a litre of diesel at Ksh100 or even less when I started in 2016 but now it costs more than doubled, eating into my income,” he adds.

Requirements for cultivating sisal

According to the AFA Sisal Handbook, the crop requires the following conditions to thrive:

Rainfall

Sisal is a drought tolerant plant and requires 500 – 1200 mm of rainfall, well distributed throughout the year and preferably in a bimodal pattern. Sisal can survive in areas receiving less than 500 mm of rainfall annually. However, the required rainfall is 500 – 1200 mm annually.

Altitude

The plant grows best in areas ranging from sea level to 1800m above sea level but is mainly grown in lower altitude areas 0 – 600m.

Soils

Sisal does well in a wide range of soils; from red clay soils to sandy loams. The soil should be deep, well drained, and of PH range 5.0 – 8.0 with the optimum PH being 6.2.

Temperature

Although sisal is a drought tolerant plant and can withstand dry climates, it grows under diverse temperatures ranging from the hot humid coastal regions to the cooler and drier areas in the hinterland i.e. between 16°C and 27°C.

Land preparation

Prepare fallow land by clearing vegetation and stacking it along hedges for decomposition. Plough and harrow the land until achieving a moderately compact seedbed. Ensure it’s neither cloddy nor loose. Complete these operations well in advance of the rainy season for timely planting. Consider ridging in heavy clay soils to prevent waterlogging.

Maintain weed-free fields by controlling troublesome varieties like couch grass. When transitioning from an old crop cycle, burn boreholes and other sisal remnants to effectively eliminate pest buildup.

Sisal varieties

The current commercial varieties are:

– Agave sisalana, which was the original sisal variety introduced into East Africa with a potential yield of 30T/Ha/Yr.

– Hildana, a selected mutant from Agave sisalana and has 30T/Ha/Yr potential yield.

– Hybrids, which include H11648 and H1300, whic have a potential yield of 50 and 40T/Ha/Yr respectively.

Sisal hybrid benefits:

Larger bole with diverse sugars for chemical and product manufacturing.

Thicker poles ideal for construction and other purposes.

Lack spines along leaf edges, causing less irritation during processing.

Drawbacks:

Heavy feeders, necessitating nutrient-rich or fertile soils.

Planting

Commercial sisal is propagated vegetatively by means of either suckers or bulbils and materials developed from meristematic tissue culture which can divide and grow into new plants. The tissue culture materials can be found at various KALRO centres around the country.

When planting, remove the dry leaves surrounding the rooting base and plant in shallow holes where the roots of bulbil nursery material fits well. The correct planting depth depends upon the size of the plant. Normally, 6-8 cm is sufficient for plants that are 35cm – 40cm tall.

Soil nutrient amendments (fertilizer use)

Commercial fertilisers are infrequently applied in sisal farming due to their impact on crop profitability as they can affect the fibre quality. Nitrogenous fertilisers, in particular, boost leaf flesh yield but not fiber yield. Sisal thrives in semi-arid conditions and in fields left fallow for a while.

However, soil fertility declines significantly after 3-4 production cycles, negatively impacting fiber yield. Applying 40-120MT/ha of sisal waste is highly beneficial, increasing yield by up to 32%. Prior to any fertilizer application, soil tests should be conducted to identify specific nutrient deficiencies.

Pests and Diseases

Pests and disease control may be done using cultural and chemical methods. Agave sisalana is relatively free from pests and diseases, though sisal weevil is a major pest of economic importance. Hybrids are more susceptible to pests and diseases.

Growing areas

Sisal, a drought-resistant crop, is primarily cultivated in Kenya’s Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs), where conventional food crops struggle to thrive, thereby playing a critical role in ensuring food security.

The majority of sisal production occurs within large-scale plantation estates, contributing to more than 80% of the total output. These estates are situated in Kilifi, Makueni, Taita Taveta, Baringo, and Nakuru Counties.

Smallholder sisal farming is widespread across the country, with notable concentrations in the following regions:

  • Eastern Region, specifically in Machakos, Makueni, and Kitui.
  • Nyanza Region, with significant cultivation in Homa Bay, Migori, and Siaya.
  • Rift Valley, particularly in the vicinity of plantation farms in the Migotiyo area of Baringo County.
  • Coast Region, where Kilifi County serves as a key hub for small-scale sisal farming.
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Source:By Zablon Oyugi