The bioeconomy offers a sane and environmentally friendly alternative. A large number of products from the petrochemical industry - from plastics and fuels to fertilisers and pesticides - have already found plant and bio-based alternatives (see our quick look at plant-based car parts and our overview of bioplastics and biopolymers). Considerable R&D efforts are underway to stimulate this bright green future, with some of the world's most brilliant scientists working in it.
But it doesn't always take top research to enter the bioeconomy. Sisal farmers in Tanzania are experiencing boom times simply because their product is now being preferred over the oil-based alternative on price grounds.
Sisal is a tropical crop that has been cultivated for centuries for its strong, durable fibres. From the 19th century onwards, the plant has spread out over the planet and today it is the second most important fibre crop, after cotton. Sisal yields industrial fibres used in the manufacture of ropes, yarns, geotextiles, luxury articles (such as designer furniture and carpets) and even in car parts. More and more it is being used to replace (cancerogenic) asbestos and fibreglass. Besides the fact that it is biodegradable, sisal's special properties make it attractive for many new applications and products (such as fire-resistant building materials).
In East Africa, the largest production zone, sisal is an estate crop, employing a considerable number of people (in Tanzania alone the industry generates 90,000 jobs). And farmers and plantation owners are now experiencing a boost, because more and more manufacturers are choosing sisal over petroleum-based synthetic fibres, such as nylon:
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J.J. Ngelime, a sisal consultant to Tanzania's Parastatal Sector Reform Commission (PSRC) is quoted by the Dar-Es-Salaam based Tanzania Daily as saying that "In recent months, demand for sisal products by foreign manufacturers has increased. For example, sisal has special use in the manufacturing of Mercedes Benz cars. More than 20kg of sisal products are needed in the manufacture of Mercedes Benz Class C car. In the USA, the manufacturers of lifting cables are now obliged by law to use sisal cores."
He added that "This is a great opportunity for sisal exporters from Tanzania, because sisal fibres from Tanzania have a competitive advantage over those from Mexico, Brazil or China".
The consultant did not give comparative prices because, he said, the situation on the world market was currently in favour of sisal exports from countries like Tanzania. Ngelime continues: "Nylon is a by-product of crude oil. The oil price is steadily increasing and moreover nylon is unfriendly to the environment because it does not decompose easily. The two reasons have led to increased demand for sisal products on the world market".
Tanzania's Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives, Mr Stephen Wassira, said over the weekend that new strategies to increase sisal output in the country are being studied. The government has reviewed its sisal policy in a bid to address issues that are impacting badly against the industry.
Originally there were about 82 sisal estates in Tanzania that were owned by the government, but many of those are being privatized. The leading investor in the country is Mohammed Enterprises Tanzania Limited (METL). The Managing Director of METL, Mr Mohammed Dewji, said his company is aware of the new opportunity available in the industry and is resolved to tap it.
As a result of his investments, Mr Dewji said, METL has become Tanzania's single largest sisal producer, contributing almost twenty per cent to the country's total sisal output. He said METL aims to increase output to 15,000 tonnes at full capacity.
Many tropical crops have different (traditional) purposes and often one single crop can be used for the prodution of both food, fodder, fuel and fibre - the four "F"'s. This makes them particularly interesting as feedstocks for the bioeconomy in its most primitive state. Sisal is no different.
Mr Dewji has understood this and says that his company "is also looking for opportunities to diversify the sisal business in the areas of sisal biogas and sisal pulp for the paper industry".
After all, the harvest and processing of sisal leaves, which contain the fibres, leaves a large amount of unused biomass residue behind. Roughly 5 percent of all harvested and processed biomass is currently converted into useful products. The other 95% make for a potential biofuel feedstock. With high energy prices, the idea of using sisal waste for bioenergy becomes attractive.
In the 1960s, Tanzania was the leading sisal producer in the world with an annual output of 230,000 tonnes. But in the 1970s production started to decline because of a fall in prices, cause by the massive introduction of synthetic, oil-based fibres. Current output in the country stands at 20,000 tonnes with annual revenues of US$17 million. The current target of the Tanzanian government is to increase the output to 50,000 tons by 2015.