What some see as waste, others see as opportunity. Today we met Kimani, a man with a vision; to dress the world in banana fibre cloth! Well not the world exactly, but to make a viable industry out of a material which is currently mostly wasted – the stems of banana plants.
Uganda is the world’s biggest consumer of bananas, eating on average over a kilo per day per person. The word ‘matooke’ means both ‘food’ and ‘banana’, which indicates how important it is in Ugandan diet. However the most popular form of banana is the green matooke banana which is cooked before serving. Small, sweet bananas are also common and sold along the roadside, and in traffic jams.
The banana plant is actually a herb and once the fruit has rippened or been cut, the main stem is discarded. Further growth is from suckers which emerge round the base. So all the biomass invested in growing the tall stem, falls to the ground and rots, unless someone makes an effort to use it. At Texfad they have some rotating machines, powered by small generators which pound the fibrous stems and separate the fibres from the surrounding watery cellular structure.
First the stem is pulled apart into sections, a bit like celery, and fed into the machine, from one end and then the other – what remains in the operators hands is the banana fibre. The rest of the stem is collected from the floor and burnt nearby, into char, which is later mixed with cassava flour (from a common starchy root) and some charcoal dust and pressed into briquettes to be sold.
The briquettes are dried overnight in the shade and the following day finished in the sun. The banana fibres are also dried in the shade, otherwise they become too brittle. When dried, the texture is a bit like sisal. The fibres can then be dyed various shades using natural dyes. They are then taken to the weaving shed.
There is no tradition of weaving in Uganda. The only fabric made before European contact, was barkcloth, made from pounding the fibres of a ficus tree; see the process here. The weaving at Texfad is done on simple frames and some larger wooden looms.
They are using a variety of materials apart from banana fibre; offcuts from t-shirt factories and strips of material, woven into colourful rugs and decorative panels.
Weaving from the banana fibres (bottom right) is done by grasping a small bundle of fibres and pushing them between the strings. When nearing the end of the fibres, another bundle is loosely mixed in with the ends to form a longer length, but the fibres are not spun together. We asked about this and were told the fibres don’t seem to cling to each other so spinning makes only a weak fibre. The surface of the woven banana fibre is very ‘furry’, but can be trimmed smooth when finished.
Another workshop was full of crafts made from dried flat sections from banana stems.
The dried material is very colourful and has a great variety of textures. It can be cut to size and used to cover many things, like photo frames, book covers and boxes. The excess material is shredded, combined with cassava flour and glue and used like papier mache to make other products.
The last room was full of sewing machines and here students are trained to sew. The aim is for them to sew the banana fibre cloth into products, once the technique for producing it has been refined.
In the store were some of the woven products, rugs and mats, but most were cotton (using the ‘seconds’ from cotton mills or t-shirt off cuts) rather than banana fibre.
Kirani has developed this venture entirely from his passion for the potential of banana fibre, a resource which is plentiful in Uganda. He trains local people in the techniques he has devised and is successful at selling the products. Unfortunately he will have to relocate soon, leaving his banana crop behind, but raw materials will not be a problem.
He wants to keep production as a cottage industry with the trainees acting as out-workers who share big orders and work coopeatively. We wished them well with the venture.
Thanks for organising the trip, Julia, and for digesting the information we got and presenting it so precisely. I enjoyed the comparison of separating the layers in the banana stem with how you peel celery stalks from one another! Looking forward to our next trip together..
Is there any way to get in contact with Kirani?
Try the TEXFAD facebook page
Yes. You can get in touch with Kimani on firstname.lastname@example.org or +256772692444.