Kenaf as Nigeria’s untapped foreign exchange earner

A Kenaf plantation

The production of jute bags is one of the many untapped prospects of Nigeria to earn foreign exchange yearly, as it is capable of contributing to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

On the average, the current jute sacks requirement in the country is estimated at 28 million, as the country relies solely on importation to meet its demand. In 2015, Nigeria spent N5.60 billion on the importation of jute bags alone.

One of the reasons attributed by stakeholders to the country’s total reliance on importation is government’s failure to provide an enabling environment for farmers and processors of Kenaf products.

Kenaf is herbaceous plant with a wide range of food and non-food derivatives, which grows annually or biennially and can be cultivated in 23 states. It is a source of an edible vegetable oil, while its seed oil is also used for cosmetics, industrial lubricants and for bio-fuel production.

Its non-food derivatives include jute bags and other shopping bags, newsprint, insulation bags, absorbents, bedding material, bio-plastics and composites for board making.

The Guardian learnt that economically, it could generate twice the revenue generated by the country from cocoa, going by its wide range of usages.

Kenaf farmers said the produce is richer in cellulose fibre than wood. The whole stalk has two fibrous components–bast (bark) and core portions. When the kenaf stems are cut into small pieces, the core and bast fibres can be separated with a mechanical fibre separator.

The separation of the two fibres allows for independent processing and provides raw materials for a growing number of products including paper, particle board, newsprints, animal bedding, livestock feed, building materials, absorbents, bioremediation aids, interior car parts, bioplastics and soilless potting mixes.

They added that its seed contains about 20 per cent oil, which can be used for cooking and lubricants. The oil can also be used in the manufacturing of soap, linoleum, paints and varnishes. Cattle feed in the form of a seedcake can be made from the residue after oil extraction. Its leaves also have medicinal properties, as the plant’s potential seems unlimited.

But the aspect, which Nigeria is currently most concerned about, is its usage as raw material for the production of jute sacks for packaging agro raw materials for exports.

According to the Kenaf Development Association of Nigeria (KEDAN), the ban on the use of synthetic packaging materials for importation and exportation of agricultural produce has necessitated the use of natural fibers like kenaf in making sacks.

The body describes it as a very important raw material in textile industries and in construction companies where it is used in making asbestos ceiling (POP). Kenaf oil is also another product, which is important to manufacturing industries. The oil contains a lot of minerals and vitamins, which are essential for human use.

Farmers have lamented that successive governments have failed to encourage commercial farming of kenaf, which they described as a golden tree, due to their shortsightedness.

It was learnt that two kenaf factories were established in Badagry, Lagos State and in Jos, Plateau State in 1960, with the aim of encouraging commercial kenaf farming, to produce items like jute bags for the storage of agricultural produce for the export of cocoa, cashew and palm kernel.

But production could not be sustained because of the erratic supply of raw materials and transportation problems, which necessitated the importation of raw jute in large quantities to supply to the factories.

The factories only lived just for a short time as they went comatose due to successive governments’ lackadaisical attitude towards the project.

A recent survey by kenaf farmers revealed that the two decorticators (machines) installed in the early years of the industry cannot be economically rehabilitated but would need to be replaced.

The demand gap, The Guardian learnt, has forced commodity’s exporters to import fairly used jute sacks from Ghana to package some of their agricultural produce, despite the country’s capacity to farm kenaf in 23 states and process it into jute bags and other related products.

Sadly, most of the jute bags from Ghana, already used for fish before being sold to Nigeria, as reliably gathered by The Guardian, are being used to package cashew for export and when it gets to Europe, one of the reasons they are rejected is because the cashews nuts will have been affected by the fish odour.

According to the Secretary of KEDAN, Mr. Adeniyi Fagbohun, if government pays more attention to the crop, due to the diversification of its end product, Nigeria can earn more than what it earns from crude oil if it is cultivated at a commercial level, “as it would engage all the jobless youths on the streets thereby reducing unemployment.

“Technology has shown a wider usage for kenaf, the core fiber of the kenaf plant is effective in oil spill clean-up and is being used for remediation projects in the Niger Delta. As an association incorporated since 2012, we’ve been advocating and organising seminars. We have even engaged the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in demonstrating the usage of kenaf in Nigeria. Even top shots in NNPC said they import kenaf to clean up oil spillage and they told us of the need to get directives at the top before this can be done in Nigeria.

“As an association, we asked our farmers to start planting but we stopped them because kenaf is not edible like yam and cassava that can be used to produce garri. So after planting, we suffer a lot with our farmers.”

Continuing, Fagbohun said: “Naturally, all farmers go to farm with the hope that after planting, there should be a yield but after planting kenaf, there is no place to put the product so that our farmers will earn a living. We have been planting in almost all Southwest states, up to the North and some parts of the East because kenaf grows very well in more than 23 states in Nigeria and within 120 days, the plant is ready for harvest. It is only in swampy areas that it doesn’t grow well.

“We have limited strength to do it. We wanted to partner the private sector but the thing still boils down to getting the intervention of government of the day. We even went to Abuja as an association where we spoke with the current minister of agriculture. After meeting with the minister, I understand that the Minister is taking it up with another group now to set up a factory in Kastina, but I don’t have any cogent proof of it yet,” he said.

While blaming government’s attitude for not being able to provide an enabling environment for farmers and processors of kenaf products, he said there is the need for government to create an enabling environment for people to engage in kenaf production, noting that if government can do this, people and farmers that KEDAN has trained would go into kenaf farming and plant in hectares of land.

As part of efforts to embark on a commercial production of the plant, he said: “As an association, we have also been speaking with external investors.”

At the inauguration of the Kenaf Producers, Processors and Marketers Association of Nigeria (KEPPMAN), in 2016, the Minister of State for Industry, Trade and Investment, Hajia Aisha Abubakar, who disclosed that the country has the potential of becoming a net exporter of jute bags and other derivatives of kenaf, lamented that the country has failed to fully harness the potential of this very important commodity.

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