Patrick Muriuki walks towards a simple machine that distantly resembles a photocopier. He checks the metallic contraption temporarily installed under a shade before switching it on.
Lying next to the machine in Kutus, Kirinyaga County, are heaps of freshly harvested banana stems and two buckets of water.
Next to them is Muriuki’s colleague Julius Kinyua and their farmhand busy assembling peels of fresh banana stems and cutting them into smaller pieces before feeding them into the machine, one at a time.
“This is the banana fibre extractor,” Muriuki points out, as he starts the machine for a 10-minute demonstration.
“It extracts fibre from banana stems. Once the fibre is extracted, we soak it for a few minutes in a bucket of salted water to remove saps. From there the fibre is immersed in another pail of clean water for rinsing,” says Muriuki, the managing director of Integrated Community Organisation for Sustainable Empowerment and Education for Development (ICOSEED).
The fibre is then rinsed on a cloth-line under a shade for drying. The machine can produce 30kg of dried fibre in a day.
He borrowed the idea from India when he toured the country in 2012 with a friend.
Upon returning home, he incorporated it into their projects.
“We introduced the initiative to help farmers make income from what is seen as waste.”
Using the banana fibre extractor they bought at Sh400,000 from India, Muriuki is turning fresh banana stems into sisal-like fibre strands that they use to make beautiful hand woven bags, mats and wall hangings.
“The fibre can be coloured depending on the product one wants to make, after which they are twinned and blended with cotton, then weaved”
HIGH IN FIBRE
The products are transported to Mombasa where they are sold to tourists at between Sh800 and Sh2,000 depending on the size.
“We work with several groups of banana farmers in Kirinyaga County, a leading banana producing region, to ensure that every bit of the crop does not go to waste.”
According to Muriuki, 50, there are millions of banana stems harvested annually in Kirinyanga but most farmers either chop them for mulches or feed them to their dairy cows, a not so healthy practice since the stems have low nutritional value and are high in fibre.
“In 2013, Banana Growers Association of Kenya and Kirinyaga Agricultural Sector Development Support Programme conducted a survey, which found out that there are 117 banana farming groups in the county, which produce 10 million bunches of bananas every year, translating into 10 million harvested banana stems,” points out Muriuki, who has a degree in agriculture and community development studies from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
Owing to the bulkiness of the banana stems, Muriuki and his group take the machine near the farmers.
“We take to a homestead of one farmer, therefore, the other group members bring their produce there. Right now we have just one machine,” Muriuki said, adding they are planning to import two more so that they can serve more farmers.
Farmers are paid per number of kilos of fibre produced by their banana stems.
A kilo of fibre earns one Sh10. A stem can produce about 10kg of fibre, therefore, a farmer can earn Sh100 from a single stem.
Jean Munene, a banana farmer from Kanyekini village in Kutus, who owns a four-acre banana plantation supplies stems to the organisation.
UPLIFTING LIVES OF BANANA FARMERS
“I harvest at least 200 bananas after every two weeks, which equals 200 stems. There are others in our group who produce more, therefore, we have the capacity to supply the raw materials,” explains Jean of Ramini Banana Growers Association, which has 90 members.
A retired teacher, she was a coffee farmer until 2013 when she switched to bananas.
“Coffee had meagre returns so I replaced them with bananas. I have four acres of Grand 9, Williams, and FIA17 varieties,” she explains, adding she begun selling banana stems this year.
“The good thing with the bananas is that they mature in a year. We have a banana collection centre where our members bring their fruits. They are weighed and sold to wholesalers from Nairobi. A kilo goes from Sh13 to Sh16.”
The farmer expressed joy at the new value adding project saying she can now earn some money from banana stems, which she had often regarded useless.
“I use proceeds from banana stem sales to buy dairy meals for my six dairy cows, so this initiative is helpful,” Jean says.
Last week, Muriuki and his organisation were crowned overall winners of the third edition of Kenya’s Green Innovation Awards by National Environment Trust Fund (NETFUND).
He bagged Sh2 million cash prize for his banana fibre production initiative that has seen the community make mats, batiks, traditional hand woven bags (Kiondo) and wall hangings besides uplifting lives of the Kirinyaga banana farmers.
Catherine Ndegwa, CEO of NETFUND, says that the winners will be incubated to enable them navigate the entrepreneurial field and expand their businesses.