Sisal: The most useful plant you've never heard of

Behind carpets and paper: Tanzania's sisal industry
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    Behind carpets and paper: Tanzania's sisal industry

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Behind carpets and paper: Tanzania's sisal industry 03:51

Story highlights

  • Tanzania is the second biggest producer of sisal behind Brazil
  • The fiber is used in engineering, construction, paper and plastics

(CNN)A nondescript, cactus-like plant, sisal is a $75 million crop that is grown on three continents and harvested for its leaves, which produce fibers that can be used to make plastics, textiles and paper. The plant is undergoing a renaissance in Tanzania, the second largest producer of the crop behind Brazil.

Sisal was introduced to Tanzania in 1893 by Dr Richard Hindorf, a German agronomist, who transported 1,000 plants from Mexico. Only 62 made it safely, but those plants formed the basis of the entire continent's industry, according to Yunus Mssika, the director general of the Tanzania Sisal Board.
    "During the 1960's sisal was the main thing in the Tanzanian economy, and it contributed almost 65% of the foreign exchange of the country," he says.
    The development of cheap synthetic fibers in the 1980s and 1990s took the bottom out of the sisal market, however, leaving many commercial farmers struggling to make ends meet. Some entrepreneurs, however, took a view that the market would recover. Mohammed Dewji, the CEO of the MeTL Group, was one.

    'White gold'

    "Sisal used to be the white gold of Tanzania, in the 60's and 70's our country produced over 200,000 tonnes of sisal, huge employment was provided," he says. "Then of course synthetics came in, and the prices of Sisal started falling tremendously, so in the late 90's I bought a lot of farms under receivership. And I said: 'look, I mean the price cannot go further down,' so I took a long-term view."
    It was a good bet. Today, MeTL Group produces more than a third of the country's total sisal output -- around 10,000 tonnes per year -- and makes a hefty profit, as prices are now at around $2,000 per tonne. Global demand for sisal has risen again.
    The crop is well-adapted to hot, dry environments, and can grow on land that may otherwise be useless for agriculture. Originally harvested to make twine and ropes, its uses have expanded, and the tough fibers are being integrated into textiles, used in construction materials and replacing fiberglass in the auto industry.
    As the value of sisal rises, so too does its potential for Tanzania's economy.
    "It's amazing because you provide a lot of employment, I think plus or minus, our sisal farms are providing thousands of jobs, and we create housing for them, we give them health benefits, we give education support to them, so it's amazing, it's good business," Dewji says.
    Watch the video above to find out more