Drought-hit East African farmers turn to growing twine

by Pius Sawa | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 10 March 2014 00:15 GMT

Alex Odundo demonstrates how a hand operated machine makes twine from sisal fiber. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Pius Sawa

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An innovative local machine that quickly processes sisal fibre is building resilience to drought for farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda

KISUMU, Kenya – An entrepreneurial Kenyan engineer has produced a machine that enables farmers to defy changing weather conditions and earn good profits by switching from traditional food crops to sisal, which thrives in semi-arid regions and needs no fertilizer.

Alex Odundo, 36, remembers how his parents struggled to make a living from farming in a harsh climate, on land prone to repeated drought and floods. The conditions reduced their crop yields, forcing them to cut down trees and make charcoal to sell for a living.

“The little piece of land in Migori County would hardly yield more than two bags of maize and beans, which was both for food and a source of income,” said the engineer.

The situation is even worse today in semi-arid areas of Kenya, where the hills have been stripped of trees, leading to widespread soil erosion.

“The rains can be so heavy that if you plant, the seeds don’t germinate, and the drought can be so severe that nothing can grow on the farm,” said James Marewa, who owns four acres of land in Game, Kisumu County.


One crop that has always flourished on drought-prone Kenyan farms is sisal. Many families make ropes and baskets on a small scale from sisal fibre, giving them a modest income. Sisal plants also help prevent soil erosion and can be used as firewood when their productive life is over.

But Odundo’s innovative flair has transformed life for some families in the region, turning sisal into a big money maker for people in dry areas including Nyanza, Northeastern and the Kenyan coast.

Odundo’s machine processes sisal leaves into fibre far more efficiently than by traditional methods. One machine can turn out a tonne of fibre in five days, a work rate that means it can be shared among up to five average sisal farmers.

The inventor began experimenting with sisal processing machinery in 1998 while studying mechanical engineering at Kisumu polytechnic college, and finally produced a suitable machine in 2011. It is available in both diesel and electrical versions.

Odundo has sold 40 machines to farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, most of them women’s and youth groups. Many orders have come from Tanzania because Oxfam, an anti-poverty charity, has helped farmers there to grow sisal. In turn, the sisal industry has expanded, and his machines were found to suit the local conditions better than imported ones.

“I have sold (machines) in Nyanza, Machakos, Mwingi, Nairobi and the coast in Kenya,” said Odundo, who sells his machines for 80,000 Kenya shillings (around $1,000) and is planning to move to mass production to further lower the price.

“I started this to make use of the idle land in semi-arid areas in Kenya. I realized that many farmers plant crops but are not doing well because of lack of rainfall,” Odundo said. “I thought about a crop that could subsidise their food crops because when rains fail, they embark on cutting down trees to get charcoal for money.”

Today more than 20,000 farmers in different parts of Kenya are earning good money from sisal. Odundo says about 10,000 acres are under sisal and the area is increasing fast.


Marewa had had one acre of sisal on his farm for many years. At one point, his neighbours reported him to the local area chief, wanting him to uproot the sisal on the ground that it was harbouring wild animals which destroyed their crops.

Then Odundo took one of his machines to Marewa’s home.

“I paid him 40,000 shillings ($495) in cash for the whole crop,” said Odundo, who harvested the sisal and used his machine to process the fibre. He took the fibre to his store in Kisumu city and used it to test another machine he had developed, a hand-operated machine which turns the fibre into twine.

Odundo is trying to persuade more farmers to buy twine machines, noting that he can sell twine to hardware shops for 140 shillings a kilo, giving him a far bigger profit than fibre, which he sells for only 25 shillings a kilo.

Marewa’s experience excited his neighbours and now they have also started planting sisal, although it takes up to three years from the time of planting to the first harvest. Mature sisal is harvested three times a year and a farmer can earn up to 150,000 shillings ($1,850) a year from one acre. One plant can be harvested for 10 years.

Five farmers in the area are now buying sisal from other farmers and processing it into fibre which they export through companies in Nairobi. Each of them exports up to 100 tonnes of fibre a month.

Locally the sisal is used for making ropes, bags, carpets, baskets and furniture, while internationally it is used in the production of paper, ceiling boards, car bodies, clothes and even paper currency.

Farmers Aska Dian’ga from Siaya County, and Rose Nyawira Pesa and Reuben Okang’s, both from Migori, are among those who are now making a profit from growing sisal.

 “I attended a meeting where Mr. Alex (Odundo) was urging farmers in Migori to plant sisal. Others were reluctant but I went for it straightaway and now everyone is asking for sisal seedlings to plant,” said Rose Nyawira, who has dedicated two acres of her farm to sisal, and now earns enough to pay her children’s school fees and buy additional food.

Odundo says climate change can make people think hard and find creative solutions. But he said he hopes farmers will continue to grow food, and not just sisal.

Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi.

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