Sisal production by Tanzania has dropped significantly since the 1960’s and has stabilised over the last five years at approximately 30,000 tonnes of line fibre per annum. In 1989 approximately one third came from public sector estates of the Tanzania Sisal Authority (TSA) and the remaining two thirds from privately owned estates. Recently, obvious signs of a move towards increased demand have encouraged new investment in the industry and, with it, technical changes.

Sisal has been processed traditionally by large stationery decorticators with effluent being removed by water pumped to the factories to wash the fibre. Transport costs for the collection of leaf have always been high in relation to the amount of sisal fibre extracted (about 4% dry fibre/leaf) and, in consequence, any way of reducing transport costs has been of interest to growers. During the 1970’s experimental work was carried out to develop a ‘mobile decorticator’ capable of radically reducing transport costs. Early machines were initially developed and constructed in Kenya by Mr Evan Spyropoulos. They met with a mixed and guarded reception mainly because of doubts about their reliability, their productivity and the quality of the fibre produced.

In the mid-eighties Spyropoulos entered into a partnership with Michael Dobell, a UK based entrepreneur, and, eventually, production moved from Mombasa to Chard in Somerset and the machine received a brand name – the ‘Crane’ mobile decorticator. The machine now offers sisal growers in Tanzania and elsewhere a cost effective alternative to the hauling of thousands of tonnes of leaf to machines designed, and often built, before the Second World War. The TSA has already invested in a number of the units which are driven by a 100-120 bhp tractor. They are operating with some success in the Central Line production area around Morogoro. Other sisal growers in Kenya and Tanzania are becoming increasingly interested in seeing how effective they will prove to be in the long term.

An alternative invention developed by Ralli Estates, a joint venture between the TSA and the UK’s ‘Chillington Corporation’, has been the utilisation of weight transfer hitches and large trailer units for leaf transport to traditional decorticator units. These have replaced the 6-7 tonne capacity lorry units on estates where no railway systems exist so that 95 bhp tractors can now be seen successfully hauling loads of 15-18 tonnes with little difficulty. Ralli Estates has also undertaken significant modifications to ‘Stork 20-12′ 8nd ’20-10’ decorticator units which they hope can significantly increase production efficiencies.

The recent improvement in the price of sisal, as the green movement encourages greater use of organic hard fibres, has brought about a significant change in mood in the Tanzanian industry, aided by a number of devaluations of the Tanzania Shilling and a liberalisation of marketing regulations for sisal. The result has been increasing new investment in the industry from non-traditiona1 sources. Examples include the purchase of a number of estates by Tan Farms owned by the Chavda Group, the Ralli Estates investment by Chillington Corporation and the recently started Ngomezi project on TSA estates near Korogwe, funded by the German Government and managed by the British firm Booker Tate.

On the processing front the TSA has negotiated funding from Italy to rehabilitate machinery at their Ngomeni factory and hopes to see the Mruazi factory between Muheza and Korogwe reopened in due course.

All the spinners are short of fibre in all grades and there is an expectant atmosphere pervading the industry with hopes that production can rise to meet the demand that already exists. Processing capacity, once the Ngomeni factory has been refurbished, will total more than double the existing total production of fibre nation wide. Providing the market remains strong there seems little doubt that local processors will be keen to add value to all available production.

The prospects for sisal therefore look much better than they did a decade ago and one would hope that growers fibre could soon resume its place as the ‘White Gold’ of Tanzania.
Steve Vaux

Mr S.G.M. VAUX is an agriculturalist with Booker Tate. He is working as a Project Controller whose main responsibility is co-ordination of the five and a half year Ngombezl Sisal Estate Project near Korogwe.

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