How One Company in Uganda is Using Banana Fiber to Make a Big Impact
Time to read 4 min
Time to read 4 min
Banana is undoubtedly an important crop for food consumption across the world. It also just so happens to be an important resource for sustainable textile production, and the demand is only increasing.
“When I looked around I saw that bananas grow abundantly in this country. We generate a lot of waste from the banana gardens," says TEXFAD managing director and founder Kimani Muturi.
While the idea of banana fabric may be new to most, the origins of banana fibers and fabric actually date back to 13th century Japan. The Japanese banana plant is called ‘Basho,’ and the Japanese word 'bashôfu' means ‘banana-fiber cloth.’ The cloth was primarily used to make kimonos in Okinawa, and these kimonos are now considered important pieces of Okinawan identity. Some historic bashôfu kimonos can even still be found and purchased today, such as this one:
Aside from its historic significance, banana fiber offers unique environmental benefits. Since the fibers come from the peel of the fruit and not the fruit itself, no food is wasted in the production of banana textiles. In fact, the stem of the plant is often otherwise wasted in the harvesting of this crop. In India, 4 tons of waste is generated for every 1 ton of fruit, and companies like Atma Leather and TEXFAD are developing innovative ways to better utilize these fibers and mitigate waste.
Banana trees take between 18 and 24 months to grow, and once they've matured, a single tree can yield leaf stalks upwards of 20 feet high. These stalks are able to be harvested every few months, requiring no additional irrigation, land, or fertilizers and providing a stable income for local farmers. Almost every part of the banana plant provides fibers in various strengths, color, and length, making it a viable source of raw materials for textile and fabric production.
Following India, Uganda is the second largest producer of bananas and the number one consumer of bananas worldwide. As Africa's top producer of the crop, bananas sometimes contribute up to 25% of daily calorie intake in rural areas especially, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Banana consumption is very much embedded in local customs and traditions in Uganda. The ripe fruit is cooked in savory dishes, consumed as dessert, and made into wine, juice, beer, dehydrated snacks and much more. In Uganda, a meal is simply incomplete without a serving of matooke, the country's staple dish.
While bananas are a good source of essential nutrients, including vitamin B6, potassium, and dietary fiber, the excess of the plant can be a major environmental issue. Every harvest, banana stems are discarded, leaving tons to rot in fields, landfills, collection centers and trading sites. For farmers in Uganda, a banana plant that doesn't yield fruit is both an inconvenience and a hinderance to income potential.
Uganda-based company TEXFAD has found a solution to combat waste and transform the otherwise unused parts of the plant into textiles. TEXFAD describes itself as a ‘waste management group,’ which business manager Jean Baptiste Okello says makes sense in a country where farmers “are struggling a lot” and must address banana waste anyway.
The company collaborates with seven different farmers' groups in Uganda, paying $2.70 USD per kilogram (more than two pounds) of dried banana fiber.
TEXFAD also works with Tupande Holdings Ltd., who helps to transport the banana stems and sort through the fibers for desirable quality.
“Our contribution in the value chain is that we put extra income in the hands of the farmer. We turn this waste into something valuable that we sell to our partners who also make things that they can sell,” says Tupande team leader Aggrey Muganga.
In a village outside the Ugandan capital Kampala, TEXFAD employees work to create handmade goods from banana fibers, including clothing, rugs, lampshades, and other household goods. The company is also experimenting with new product lines including a variety of new fabrics made from banana and even hair extensions.
Faith Kabahuma, from TEXFAD's banana hair development program, says that all products are biodegradable and hopes that they can help rid the market of synthetic fibers.
“The problem with synthetic fibers, they do so much clogging, like everywhere you go, even if you go dig in the gardens right now, you would find synthetic fibers around, so it's not environmentally-friendly,” says Kabahuma.
With these hair extensions, the ladies will bury them in the soil and they will become fertilizer for the garden, making them a far more sustainable alternative to synthetic products.
While banana may seem like an unlikely source to make textiles and other sustainable products from, it's proving that there is always room for innovation. Making textiles from banana stems demonstrates remarkable resourcefulness and makes us wonder — what other plant-based materials can we create?