Sisal is one of the commodities which is facing stiff competition from synthetic materials. While sisal had a strong base in the past, the demand for sisal has not escaped the general trend of substitution of natural fibres by synthetic fibres. World production of sisal and henequen reached more than 800 000 tonnes in 1965, but this has declined to almost one third of that amount in recent years. Production in Africa in particular declined during that period from more than 400 000 tonnes to less than 50 000 tonnes.
In spite of the strongly reduced demand and hence production, sisal remains a natural fibre of great importance to tens of thousands of producers, located in particular on poorer soils, who, given the prevalent climatological conditions, do not have reasonable alternatives to the sisal they grow. The sisal sector is faced with several major problems such as lack of technological development, stagnant prices, competition from alternative materials and inadequate development of new uses for sisal fibre or its by-products. Should sisal regain some of its earlier importance, both in terms of production and market share, then major efforts need to be undertaken by the sisal sector.
The commodity development strategy adopted by the FAO Intergovernmental Group on Hard Fibres at its 29th Session in 1996 stressed the importance of expanding demand for sisal, particularly in non-traditional products with market potential. The strategy states that over the longer term, new and improved products should be developed, especially in applications where natural fibres have advantages over synthetics. The strategy also recognises the potential benefits to be gained from the sale of by-products, which would, at the same time, reduce the volume of waste disposed.
The seminar on Alternative Applications for Sisal and Henequen, held in Rome on 13 December 2000, provided a forum for the analysis and exchange of information between technical and market experts, with a view to evaluate the market potential for existing and, in particular, alternative applications for sisal and henequen. Improved utilisation of by-products and potential use of waste was also reviewed. It was the aim of the seminar to forward ideas on promising applications, which are not only technically feasible but also have a high degree of potential acceptability in the targeted markets in commercial terms.
It is hoped that this seminar will contribute to the further development and revitalisation of the sisal sector.
Rolf W. Boehnke
Common Fund for Commodities