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March 28, 2007

Innovative South African venture feeds demand for natural textiles

The woeful state of SA’s clothing and textiles industry has spurred some innovative ideas to boost exports. IN A bid to diversify its operations, Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed clothing and textile operation Seardel has turned its eye to a green alternative. As concerns about climate change increase the demand for more sustainable alternatives to oil, there is a burgeoning market for environmentally friendly textiles, especially in Europe.

Seardel has set up a company, Sustainable Fibre Solutions (SFS), to explore the cultivation and processing of natural fibres and their by-products. The crop of choice is an ancient African plant, kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus), that is drawing attention internationally for its vast potential in an array of applications.

An alternative source to trees in the production of pulp for paper, kenaf is also preferable as a high-yielding and annually renewable source. But kenaf’s application potential reaches way beyond the production of a green alternative to paper and pulp. The plant is also an alternative to synthetic fibre in the production of thermal and sound insulation, automotive components, bio-composite and compressed non-woven materials.

Kenaf has been successfully cultivated in the US and parts of Asia for years. However, while it originated in Africa, modern cultivation of the plant is new to southern Africa. SFS is the first company to successfully cultivate kenaf in SA. After extensive research and field trials had proven the commercial viability of kenaf, the company identified Winterton in the KwaZulu- Natal Midlands as the ideal area to grow the crop on a commercial scale. In a R100m joint venture with the Industrial Development Corporation, SFS has now set up operations in the area, where it has also built a processing plant.

Commercial farmers have already successfully produced four crops (14,000 tonnes) and the facility will start commercially processing four tonnes of kenaf stalk an hour in the first quarter of 2007.

SFS envisages two phases of the project. During the first it will utilise 1700ha to cultivate 25500 tonnes of stalk, yielding 6375 tonnes of kenaf fibre a year. During a second phase of the project production will be scaled up to 9560 tonnes of bast fibre a year, using 2550 ha of farm land. The product will mainly be supplied to the export market, with 70% of product leaving local shores, but in scaling up production SFS hopes to also supply more product into the domestic market.

The kenaf stalk consists of an outer bast fibre and an inner core fibre. The bast makes up 25% of the dry weight of the processed stalk and the core 65%, with the rest constituting dust and short fibres. The bast fibre can be used in the manufacture of automotive composites and automotive trim components. The core fibre also has vast application potential. Because of its physical structure the fibre can absorb up to four times its weight, almost double the absorption capacity of wood chips and shavings. This makes it ideal for the absorption, drainage and neutralisation of liquids, sewage and chemical and oil spills. Other applications include paper, particle board for the building industry, animal bedding, packing material and engineered lumber.

With European environmental legislation seeking to advance the recyclability of vehicle components, automotive natural fibre composites have slowly been phased in, now accounting for a growing percentage of interior components. This is the market SFS has set its sights on. “There is an increasing trend in the motor and building industry to steer away from plastics, and this is a potential market we can tap into,” says SFS MD Kim Capstick-Dale.

He admits it is challenging to introduce a new raw material where established supply chains and recipes are in place to accommodate existing raw materials, but he is confident about prospects. “We are the first to put our toes in the water but our research and investment have been extensive and we are excited about the macro potential of this new project.”

Business Day

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