One broad, pointed leaf plucked from the sisal plant can earn a Kenyan farmer 5 shillings, or about $0.05 USD. But the same leaf, processed, spun into twine and spooled can sell for 100 shillings, or $1.15. That added value looked like opportunity to Alex Odundo, a Kenyan engineer and inventor who has developed three machines to turn sisal into twine.

As a child, Odundo would sit with his mother and strip off the husk of the sisal leaf by hand. That is how Kenyan farmers and their families usually process the leaf, if they process it at all. The slow work inspired the idea to automate the process. Fifteen years and many prototypes later, with a degree from Kisumu Polytechnic and a family of his own, Odundo has developed the machines and he sells them through his company Sifa Machinery.

Now, he would like to mass produce them and sell them more cheaply to farmers. Here’s a snapshot of what could be the future of sisal twine manufacturing in rural Kenya.

Sisal decorticator

The decorticator is basically a cylindrical drum in a frame that strips the green husk from the sisal leaf and grinds the inner fiber into strands with blades. Decortication means husk removal, by the way (we had to look it up, too).

It has a five- to six-horsepower motor that can be either diesel or gasoline powered. The machines cost $500 to $700 to make, depending on the model, and Odundo sells them for $850 to $1200. The prices should drop with mass production. So far, he has sold 30.

Sisal twine manufacturing

Alex Odundo demonstrates the sisal twine spinning machine. Photo courtesy of Alex Odundo

Sisal twine machine

The twine machine spins the sisal fibers into a thin twine. It is composed of a 0.5-horsepower electric motor, a fly arm, bobbin, hub, friction belt and a smaller feeding motor of 1/16 horsepower. It is small enough for a farmer to use in the doorstep, Odundo says. It costs him about $350 to make by hand and he sells it for $600.

Spooling Machine

The sisal rope spooling machine packs the spun twine to prepare it for sale. It can spool different quantities and includes a two-horsepower motor that spins a couple of rollers. It costs Odundo about $1000 to make and he sells it for $1400.

The bottom line With one decorticator and two twine machines, a farmer can transform 120kg of sisal into twine in eight hours. That amount could sell for $120, Odundo says. All costs considered, the daily profit could be 50 percent of the investment.

Sisal the savior

Odundo has called sisal a savior to Kenya and it’s not hard to see why. The sisal is an agave thought to be native to the dry Yucutan Peninsula of Mexico, and it thrives in semi-arid climates. More than half of Kenya is semi arid. So, a plant like sisal that does not wither during long droughts really could be a boon to farmers. But only if they also own the processing equipment.

“In the past, farmers were forced to sell the few sisal plants that they have along fences to business men who exploited them,” Odundo told E4C by email. “Despite sisal being a potential cash crop, no one was willing to plant more because of the processing methods being used. These were labor intensive with poor-quality products.

“With the introduction of the simple machines shown here, many small sisal farm holders in dry lands are making their farms more profitable through planting more sisal crops and using the set of machines to process and add value to a consumable product just at the door step.

The sisal twine spooling machine in action. Photo courtesy of Alex Odundo

“The set of machines have created job opportunities for young women and men, and as a result [they have] boosted the economic growth of many communities that live in the dry lands.”

The future of sisal twine

Odundo has become something of a media sensation since he presented his decorticator at Maker Faire Africa in 2010. Since then, he became a TED Fellow in 2012. Moving forward, he has plans to improve the machines.

“I am looking forward to taking these technologies to the next higher levels by improving their efficiency , durability and aesthetics, and finally to do mass production of the machines to meet the demand that is currently rising every day,” he says.

Video: Alex Odundo and the decorticator at Maker Faire Africa 2010

Maker: Alex Odira Odundo from ButterflyWorks – Learning on Vimeo.

Edit: Jan. 8, filled out the descriptions of the three machines.
Edit: Jan. 10, added video.

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