Sisal production takes root in Tanzania to revive the industry's glory

01Oct 2019
The Guardian
Sisal production takes root in Tanzania to revive the industry's glory

Sisal is an endemic tropical crop whose leaves provide the world's most important hard natural fibre used in the production of twines, ropes, sacks and carpets.

Sisal production in Tanzania began in the late 19th century by the German East Africa Company. Sisal was continually produced during the German administration and the British administration and was the colony's largest export highly prized for use in cordage and carpets worldwide. At the time of independence in 1961, Tanzania was the largest exporter of sisal in the world and the industry employed over 1 million farmers and factory workers.

Sisal production began to decline after independence due to the drop in world prices as synthetic nylon substitutes became more popular. The nationalisation of the estates during Ujamaa and the mismanagement of the estates further dropped the production in the country.  However, in recent years the government has injected funds to help revive the industry's glory.  

Sisal is the oldest commercial cash crop still in survival in Tanzania. In 1893 visionary German agronomist Dr. Richard Hindorf introduced the crop into the colony.  The plant Agave sisalana was smuggled into Tanganyika from Yucatán, Mexico in the belly of a stuffed crocodile.  Only 66 plants had survived the journey but it was commercially viable to start the industry. The country's warm and semi arid climate was perfect for the plant and production in the colony grew exponentially. The plants fibers were mainly used for the production of ropes for the German naval fleet and sacks to export other agriculture products from the colony. This success story began to grab the attention of the other European powers expanding their navies and the industry expanded to the neighbouring colonies of modern-day Kenya, Mozambique and Angola.

At independence in 1961, Tanganyika was the world leader in sisal production and over 200,000 tonnes of sisal was produced annual employing over 1 million workers in the industry.  The crop was the country's highest foreign exchange earner and was referred to as Tanzania's 'green gold'.  

Sisal production in the country peaked in 1964 with around 250,000 tonnes in production from regions from all over the country such as Tanga, Morogoro, Arusha, Mwanza and Shinyanga. In 1967 following the Arusha Declaration most of the sisal estates were nationalized by the government. This began the downfall of the sisal industry as bureaucracy, over-centralization and lack of experience caused the production to fall rapidly.  Furthermore, with the increasing popularity of Synthetic Nylon fibers, drove the world price for sisal down resulting in the foreclosure of many sisal factories.

With the changing economic landscape in Tanzania, the government of Tanzania passed the Sisal Industry Act, 1997; which allowed privatization of the government owned factories and established the

Tanzania Sisal Board. Tanzania currently sits as the second largest producer of sisal in the world after Brazil and the government  had revived the industry to help facilitate the nations former glory.  

The Sisal plant is used to produce a sisal line fiber. Historically this fiber has been used to produce threads and ropes for ships. Domestically the fibers are used to make various handicraft products such as carpets, bags, sacks and low density cords.  

In Tanzania, the Katani Limited constructed the country's first sisal waste bio gas power plant at Hale. Tanzania’s large scale sisal farming  by Noble Azania Investments is one the successful commercial farming projects in Africa expected to feature the 6th Commercial Farm Africa meeting to be held in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi next month.

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