Sisal farming [Sisal, SISO scheme, Best practices]

The sisal industry is the oldest commercially organised agricultural undertaking and one of the longest surviving agricultural industries in Tanzania. Introduced in 1893 by Dr. Richard Hindorf a German Agronomist, as a commercial crop, the sisal industry grew to become the most extensive commercial agriculture and primary processing in Central Africa, spreading to Kenya, Mozambique and Angola. Peak production was reached in 1964 when Tanzania alone produced 234,000 tons grown in Tanga, Morogoro, Coast, Kilimanjaro, Arusha, Singida, Iringa, Mwanza, Shinyanga, Mara, Mtwara and Lindi regions, virtually throughout Tanzania.

Sisal has played a significant role in the country's economy being the largest foreign exchange earner in Tanzania up to the 70's and the largest employer providing employment to over 1,000,000 permanent and casual workers. It is expected to continue as it still provides a well being for a very large number of people in the country. This is due to the characteristics of the sisal plant itself. The importance of the crop for the country's economic growth, rural development and provision of employment opportunities, now and in future, cannot be taken lightly as the crop is drought resistant and very tolerant to a variety of soils, hence it can enable even arid areas to be brought into productivity that would not be possible for other crops. Sisal is the only crop where Tanzania was the largest producer in the world, producing the best quality.

Presently, even in a depressed state, the sisal industry is employing over 100,000 people and is the fourth largest agricultural exporter. The predominant mode of production is still estate based even in the smallholder and out grower schemes that have been established.

During the 1960s and 1970s there was serious development of secondary fibre processing factories producing sisal twines, yarns, ropes, bags, carpets, pulp and paper. Sisal was and is still also being used in the construction and manufacturing industry for padding, in mattresses and handcrafts (see sisal products). A good percentage of this capacity is still available but under utilised due to low fibre production and unfavorable policies in local production. Also, in efforts to add value to the raw sisal fibre as only the 2% of the sisal plant is utilised to produce fibre the remaining 98% biomass that is thrown away as "waste" at cost both financially and to the environment is now known to contain serious economic value and is being seriously exploited. (see sisal energy)

Katani Ltd was formed during the transformation of the economy in Tanzania to a free market seeing new opportunities cropping up after years of product and market research. Since then the industry has started reviving itself as an emerging market and production had increased to 35,000 tons by 2010 showing an increasing upward trend in production by 54% from 1997 which is continuing to gather momentum.

Since before the privatisation of the Sisal industry under the former Tanzania Sisal Authority (TSA) there has been extensive research into sisal that has been carried on by Katani Ltd which has concluded significant attributes of the sisal plant. There are ten attractive characteristics of sisal that do not occur in any other industry in Tanzania namely;

The naturally safe and environmentally friendliness use of sisal for making products and more so as a renewable energy resource in rural and town areas.

The extensive Market Research into new fibre-based products that has market potential running into millions of tons worldwide. This in addition to traditional products which are still extensively demanded. And as sisal can be grown and processed in every region of Tanzania, with serious investment, an increase in production even 40 times can be reached in 15 years.

The 98% biomass, so called "waste" hitherto thrown away, is now known to be more valuable than the 2% if fully exploited. This opens up further market opportunities for sisal to produce energy, medicinal, composite and value added products such as pulp for paper, which will be very competitive.

The toughness of the sisal plant. It thrives well in drought conditions or heavy rain. In more than 100 years of commercial production in Tanzania, there has not been a single drought that has killed sisal. Drought is the worst enemy of rain-fed agriculture, but sisal can be grown virtually in all regions of Tanzania.

The ability of sisal to survive under harsh conditions in marginal land and even fire providing protection against soil erosion and it can be inter-cropped with food and cash crops like maize, cotton, legumes and sunflower.

Planting or harvesting of sisal can be done at any time of the year. The mature plant can be left for more than 12 months without affecting the plant or quality of harvest. Sisal fibre can be stored for over five years without affecting its quality. It has no post harvest losses.

All established sisal estates have established infrastructures and civic facilities. They are natural farm centres, which can offer other services like banking, insurance, pension and telecommunications to the rural areas.

The abundance of managerial, skilled and semi-skilled workers with qualifications and experience in the sisal industry built over a period of more than 100 years of commercial production.

Tanzania boasts to have the only sisal Research Centre in the world at Mlingano, Tanga now equipped with an ultra-modern Meristematic Tissue Culture (MTC) Laboratory.

The Sisal Smallholder and Out grower (SISO) scheme re-introduced by Katani Limited in 1999 has shown serious success with already more than 2,000 Tanzanian families who have joined the scheme and more than 12,000 acres have been planted.

As sisal is the only industry where Tanzania once had world supremacy in quality and quantity, it is a crop where Tanzania stands a chance to be extremely competitive in the global market. The sisal industry will also contribute much more significantly to poverty reduction and creating economic development in rural and urban areas by providing more than 500,000 new rural jobs without counting support activities and service provision to the industry and the workers. Since the market scope for sisal products runs into millions of tons, the issue of quantum of development is a policy and financing decision.

The economies of scale, high demand, technological, quality, geographical and extensive attractive commercial and economic attributes of the sisal industry in Tanzania will all play a major part in widening the market base and make sisal products very competitive in the local and the world markets.

Tanzania enjoys a competitive edge over other countries due to an abundance of land, good weather, a history of commercial sisal production, attractive investment policies and having been in the forefront of most of the research and development initiatives.

Katani Ltd has vertically integrated itself in the industry in efforts to take undertake the opportunities available and to positively contribute to social and economic development in the country by taking the lead to initiate sustainable development in the wake of globalisation through the establishment of the Sisal Smallholder and Outgrower Scheme known as SISO, by playing a major role to ensure the success of the programme.

The company provides back up services in land preparation, seeds, transportation and extension services ensuring standards are kept. One of the main services provided is maintaining and developing the processing facilities to make sure there are markets for sisal leaves at world market prices.

The utilisation of research results already obtained is done by making sure that they are put into practical use to add value to the sisal plant thus the farmers income. Also the company assists the farmers in forming registered community-based organisations, accessing loans and grants to pay for services rendered, and facilitating repayment of loans to financiers. This is in conjunction with empowering the farmers to eventually themselves provide the services needed to efficiently undertake the whole production and delivery of services.

The agronomic part of growing sisal commercially has been researched for many years and Tanzania has been in the forefront through the former TSA and now Katani Ltd. Various projects undertaken recently, including merimeristic tissue culture (MTC) have added to this knowledge. Within the SISO scheme, increasing efficiency and productivity, more mechanisation through intensive planting with whole plant harvesting is being investigated. Likewise, tissue culture will be used to produce better planting materials.

The production of sisal in Tanzania is mainly estate-based on plantations of varying sizes averaging 3,000 hectares (or 7,500 acres) per estate. Every estate has primary processing facilities to produce fibre. However, more recently the decision to initiate sisal smallholder/outgrower programmes has been arrived at after consideration and careful study of the Brazilian, Chinese and Mexican sisal production systems.

The smallholder production system has been found to be less costly with a lot of socio-economic advantages. Similar smallholder schemes in Tanzania and elsewhere for crops such as sugarcane, tea and coffee have shown positive results. It will be possible to create rural entrepreneurs and commercialise agricultural activities to address wealth creation and poverty in a sustainable way.

Katani Limited, as sisal processing company is implementing the smallholder/outgrower scheme by providing land, expertise and other services. The target group has been villagers surrounding the estates owned by the company, former and current workers in the sisal industry and other Tanzanians interested in commercial farming and in developing sisal as a cash crop.

The main objective of the scheme are to change the current plantation based mode of production to smaller commercial-sized units run by smallholder/out grower farmers thus cutting the cost of production while at the same time increasing the income of the commercial farmer significantly. This will expand ownership of the industry to address social, economic, political and food security issues and ensure economic empowerment of the rural poor who form the majority of the people in the country. Thus, create rural employment, commercial farmers and entrepreneurship capacity building in an effort to generate greater wealth and reduce poverty.

The minimum hectarage for these smallholders is 6 hectares (or 15 acres) planted professionally and commercially. In between the rows of the young sisal, the farmers grow annual food crops or keep cattle. The market for these farmers is the Katani processing factory within their vicinity, which in turn is linked to world market networks developed over many years. The scheme has proven to have many positive implications to the livelihood of the smallholder/outgrower farmer and the country's economy in general.

The farmer will have an increased output per unit area through proper land preparation, seeds, training and extension services that are provided by Katani Ltd. Fully developed at current market  prices, the 6 Hectares will yield a monthly income for the farmer taking her out of the poverty cycle. The farmer will earn more with increased food and sisal production on a higher hectarage. Her standard of living will improve significantly. The SISO scheme is envisaged to create employment opportunities directly and indirectly to the rural populace through commercial farmers and rural entrepreneurs who will provide all the back-up services in conjunction with the farmer groups.

Other benefits that will occur on a national level will stimulate economic growth through increased sisal fibre and food production, thus ensuring food security, political stability and economic development. This entails economic empowerment to the rural people who will also ensure that the local market for basic products produced in the country will increase.

With increased sisal fibre and increased capacity utilisation of the basic sisal products industries both the local and central Governments will obtain more tax revenue. The country stands to earn more foreign currency from the sale of sisal fibre and sisal products outside the country.

Katani Ltd. started the SISO in 1999 in one its estates called Mwelya/Usambara. After seeing the positive response there, the company has now introduced the scheme in all its five estates of Hale/Mruazi, Magoma/Kulasi, Magunga, and Ngombezi. The families involved have successfully implemented the scheme using their own resources which has proved to be very popular. This was an outcome of part of the sensitisation project undertaken by Katani Ltd in conjunction with a number of NGOs. Resource mobilisation is continuing to be undertaken. The smallholders have organised themselves into a cooperative society that enables them to collectively negotiate for services rendered to them, prices of their produce and to mobilise resources and offer collective monitoring of the project.

Other organisations which support the SISO scheme are the Tanzania Sisal Board (TSB) representing the government was established for the promotion and development of a viable sisal industry in the country. They have assisted with advice and backup and also act as arbitrators. Also the Sisal Association of Tanzania (SAT) formed by sisal growers, spinners, manufacturers and those dealing with marketing of sisal fibre and its products. The association passed a referendum to promote the SISO scheme as one of the positive ways to revitalise the sisal industry.

Katani Ltd after carefully studying different modes of sisal production; the marketing trends in the sisal industry both locally and globally; the cost structures in the sisal industry; the socio-economic factors at play in Tanzania and elsewhere, saw the commercial and economic need to change to commercial smallholder and out grower system of production. Under this programme significant research and pilots were done to establish best practices in sisal farming.

Katani Ltd has developed a Manual on sisal growing in Swahili and an economic analysis for the recommended minimum holding of 15 acres per family. The company has extensive linkages to marketing systems and managerial expertise in sisal growing, processing and research and development.

Currently Katani Ltd in partnership with Oxfam GB are undertaking a sisal project in the Lake Region of Tanzania in Shinyanga, Kishapu District to empower farmers to link to the sisal value chain and upscale their activities. The project developed under Tanzania Scale-Up (TASU) initiative of Oxfam has earmarked 85,000 farmers to engage in sisal contract farming and small scale processing. The replication of the Katani SISO scheme has been successfully integrated in Kishapu where sisal farms and processors are continually being established with great impact of the livelihoods of the people as sisal has become an insurance crop in this drought ridden area.