Banana plants are almost useless to the common farmer without their fruits, and they are even a pain because they must be uprooted at times.
But can these discarded stems somehow be returned to life?
Yes, according to a Ugandan startup, that’s buying banana stems in a business that turns fibres into biodegradable handicrafts.
It’s a fresh idea in this East African country that’s literally a banana republic.
Uganda has the world’s highest banana consumption rate and is Africa’s leading producer.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, bananas can contribute up to 25% of daily calorie consumption in rural areas.
In Uganda, banana consumption is deeply ingrained in local customs and history. Many people consider a dinner to be incomplete without a serving of matooke.
The crop must be harvested by decapitating the stem, which is often left to rot in open fields.
However, a local waste management firm, TEXFAD, is now taking advantage of this glut of rotting stems to extract banana fiber, which is subsequently transformed into goods such as hair extensions.
According to TEXFAD’s business manager, John Baptist Okello, it makes sense in a country where farmers “are struggling a lot” and there is a lot of banana waste.
The company pays $2.7 (USD) per kilogram of dried fiber and works with seven distinct farmer groups in western Uganda.
Tupande Holdings Ltd., whose trucks supply banana stems from central Uganda farmers, also provides material to TEXFAD.
Tupande’s employees pick through stems in search of desirable ones. The fiber is then spun into small threads using machines.
“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,” explains Tupande team leader Aggrey Muganga.
“We are doing this to create extra income, to create employment for ourselves, and to contribute to the industrialization of Uganda and betterment of the lives of Ugandans.”
Tupande Holdings Ltd. deals with more than 60 farmers that supply the raw material.
This is merely a fraction of what is available in a country where more than a million hectares of bananas are cultivated.
According to Uganda Bureau of Statistics data, banana output has consistently increased throughout the years, rising from 6.5 metric tonnes in 2018 to 8.3 metric tonnes in 2019.
TEXFAD employs more than 30 people at a plant in a community just outside Kampala, Uganda, who use their hands to produce goods from banana fibers.
The company exports its rug and lampshade products to Europe.
Such items are possible because “banana fibre can be softened to the level of cotton,” explains Okello.
Working with researchers, TEXFAD is also experimenting on possible fabrics from banana fibres.
The company is also designing hair extension products it believes could help rid the market of synthetic products.
All products by TEXFAD are biodegradable, says Faith Kabahuma from the company’s banana hair development programme.
She says the company’s hair extensions will soon be on the market.
“The problem with synthetic fibres, they do so much clogging, like everywhere you go, even if you go to dig in the gardens right now, you would find synthetic fibres around, so it’s not environmentally-friendly,” says Kabahuma.