Little-known Kithangani village on the outskirts of Chuka is currently hot, dry and dusty, thanks to the failed rains.
Most farms in the semi-arid region are either bare or hosting failed crops, save for a few where lush sisal crop is growing.
“Sisal grows well in these regions, despite the temperatures rising to 30-40 degrees. We have previously experienced crop failure and regularly relied on relief food, but with the sisal crop we are assured of a harvest all year round,” says Mary Gakii, the chairperson of Kithangani Women Group.
She has reserved a half-acre of her land for growing sisal, which she harvests and processes at a regional centre, together with other members of the group.
“We are currently 30 members and we started the group with Sh200,000 capital. We were introduced to sisal farming by a former chief, Nyamu Ragwa, who has since died,” she says, adding that the chief saw the potential of the crop in the dry region quite early.
Sisal is grown organically, and requires little production cost as the crop is not attacked by pests and diseases. Besides, it has low water requirements, thus surviving in droughts, which kill other crops, explains Agnes Wanja, a member of the group.
The crop that is propagated from the bulbils or rhizomes is planted at a depth of 3cm and a spacing of 3.5m by 0.95m for one to end up with 3,000 plants per ha. The crop then takes two to three years to mature, depending on the climate.
Once the crop is mature, the leaves are harvested manually when they reach about a metre long and are cut 2.5 – 5cm from the plant.
The green outer leaf is then removed by a process called decortication and can either be used as animal feed or as manure. The sisal fibre is then hung up to dry in the sun, then brushed and woven into the required textiles.
HIGHEST QUALITY FIBRES
According to Jamleck Kirimi, a technician in the group, the leaves should not be decorticated after 48 hours from cutting time.
“The drying sisal fibres should also not take too long in the sun as this may affect the colour and quality,” he says.
Using the sisal, the group makes products that include baskets and ropes. “We would be doing more products but we do not have a sisal yarn brushing machine,” says Ms Wanja.
The group has partnered with another, named Kaumo Mugirirwa Women, whose members are elderly women, some above 85 years, to whom they sell the fibres at Sh80 per kilo to process by blending different threads to come up with attractive products like baskets (kiondo).
Ms Joyce Kanga, the chairperson of Kaumo Mugirirwa Women Group, says the products that go for between Sh500 and Sh1,000 have helped them earn a decent living despite the arid conditions.
“Sisal farming in Kenya is a key income earner as the country produces some of the world’s highest quality fibre, which is used in production of premium products, but in Kithangani the potential hasn’t been fully exploited,” Mr Sammy Nyaga, an agricultural researcher, explains.
Mr Nyaga feels much more needs to be done as the crop occupies the sixth position among fibre plants and is classified as one of the world’s most important natural fibre.
Kenya was ranked third largest sisal producer after Brazil and China, though 80 per cent of Kenya’s sisal is exported raw.
“Sisal is an environmentally friendly crop that absorbs large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere all year round.”
To maximise on land use, sisal can be cultivated alongside aloe vera, which is also an arid crop, alongside beekeeping, as sisal is a valuable forage for honey bees due to its long flowering periods.