The hype around the sustainable alternative to cotton does not seem to have translated to an expected boom in business.
Upon learning of the brilliant future of banana fibre from the internet, Nahidul Hassan Sabbir set up a processing factory a few years ago. He brought a fibre processing machine home, named his factory ‘Jamuna Banana Fibre Limited’ as he lives in Sirajganj, beside the Jamuna River, and began his experiments with the fibre.
Initially, he received some orders from people who make handicrafts with banana fibre, students conducting research on it, and also sent some samples abroad in hopes of exporting it.
But the orders soon dried up, and no foreign buyers ever contacted him. Nahid was now left with abundant supply, but hardly any demand.
There are indeed plenty of raw materials to produce the fibre as Bangladesh produces bananas on over 8.8 million hectares of land. And a banana tree stems fruit only once in its lifetime.
So, once it sprouts fruits, the stem will inevitably rot, catch a virus, or farmers will cut it down so that a new stem can emerge from the root again.
For every tonne of fruit, a banana plantation produces around two tonnes of debris.
“I started well. But for the last two years, my situation has been very bad. I am one of the early adopters of banana fibre in Bangladesh. There were some customers who made handicrafts on a test basis. Some university students took fibre for research. But a larger market that we had hoped for never took off,” Nahid said.
Fibre of the future?
Turning a banana stem into fibre is a long process. First, the stem has to be cut into celery-shaped chunks. After they are dried up in the sun, the chunks are inserted into the machines for processing. This fibre primarily looks similar to jute fibre.
But its textile blend with cotton is turning this into a potential next-generation sustainable textile fibre.
Banana fibres absorb dyes better than cotton, meaning it needs less water and less land to produce.
The global eco-fibre market is expected to reach $55.3 billion by 2030. It was estimated to be around $40.9 billion in 2022, according to market insights firm Research and Markets.
According to Industry Growth Insight, the global banana fibre market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 4.5% during the forecast period, to reach $1.2 billion by 2030.
“The growth of this market can be attributed to the increasing demand for banana fibre in various applications, such as high-quality security/currency paper, packing cloth for agriculture produce, ships tow ropes and wet drilling cables,” the Industry Growth Insight report reads.
Besides, its usage and demand in the textile industry are also expected to rise in the coming years.
But in Bangladesh, while experimentation with cotton-banana fibre blending is going on in the country, the textile industry has yet to embrace sustainable fibres with open arms as it does with cotton.
This has pushed entrepreneurs towards improvising new strategies to survive the new market.
Back to the drawing board
Shaheen Ali started his factory ‘Natural Banana Fibre Private’, located in Jashore, in 2019. He has four machines, with which he makes handicrafts like floor mats, wall mats, table mats, etc., with banana fibre.
But he did not get many customers locally or abroad.
Now he has planned to present Bangladeshi customers with a different idea.
“I want to use banana fibre to make paper, files, and hardboards. I am also planning to make sanitary napkins and diapers with this. As my products will cost less, there is a chance my products will sell,” he said.
Both Shaheen and Nahid said there are a few dozen small entrepreneurs like them who started producing banana fibre with much enthusiasm but are struggling at the moment.
After Radhavati Devi made a saree with banana fibre earlier this year, the talks of a sustainable alternative to cotton in Bangladesh were enthusiastically covered in the media.
Besides, according to industry insiders, as climate change, sustainability, SDG goals and environmental challenges are an increasing focus of the textile buyers of the West, there will be an inevitable shift to value-added fibres and Bangladesh too will have to shift from basic cotton.
But in a recent conversation, Saleudh Zaman Khan, one of the directors of the Bangladesh Textile Mills Association (BTMA), said the current tax — about 40% — on importing any fibre other than cotton makes importing banana fibre expensive at the moment. And so it has yet to gain demand in the country in terms of demand, thereby hindering growth of the local industry.
“Scaling up is possible,” he said. “The total revenue will come from the wastage that we throw away. We will earn dollars from this. It is a good opportunity. Our spinning industry is in trouble because we are dependent on cotton only.”
“If we try different varieties of fibre, our product basket will be expanded. We will earn a lot more revenue,” he added.