Revolutionising the fibre industry - naturally

In the quest for sustainability; protecting and preserving the environment for future generations in a way that protects and preserves the economic health of a society is at the heart of most modern-day development. Irrespective of industry, product type, service offering etc. the search for viable green alternatives to petroleum-reliant, synthetic raw material is intense.

Hence there is a burgeoning need for the successful production and application of natural fibres. Kenaf is not a new crop; it is 4000 years old with roots in ancient Africa. Traditionally cultivated in Africa and many parts of Asia for cordage; it is now fast drawing attention as an alternative source to trees in the production of pulp for paper and to synthetic fibre in the production of thermal and sound insulation, automotive components and bio-composite lofted and compressed nonwoven materials - to name only a few applications.

Kenaf, a member of the hibiscus family (Hibiscus cannabinus L) is related to okra and cotton. It is a high yielding interim crop and an annually renewable source; which positions it very favourably when compared to other crop sources such as Southern pine trees, which take up to 40 years to reach harvestable size. Kenaf achieves a height of 12 – 13 feet in just 3 – 4 months.

Although Kenaf originated in Africa, the modern cultivation is new to Southern Africa. It has been successfully cultivated in the United States and parts of Asia for years. Sustainable Fibre Solutions (SFS Pty Ltd), a joint venture between the Seardel Investment Corporation and the Industrial Development Corporation, is the first to successfully cultivate Kenaf in South Africa.

An investment company listed on the JSE, Seardel is the largest textile and clothing manufacturing group in Southern Africa and has a proud history of innovation and leadership. “SFS is a pioneering company, we are set to revolutionise the natural fibre industry. Introducing a new raw material requires a quantum mindset change from existing raw materials, where established supply chains, recipes, indeed habits exist. It is a challenging task. We are the first to put our toes in the water and we are extremely confident about its future - our research and investment has been extensive and thus we are excited about the macro potential of this new project,” says Kim Capstick-Dale, Managing Director of Sustainable Fibre Solutions.

SFS selected farmers in the Winterton area of the Natal Midlands for this project. For logistical reasons and reduced transport costs SFS has erected their Kenaf processing (decorticating) plant in the same area. This state of the art facility will commenced commercially processing 4 tons of Kenaf stalk per hour in April 2007.

SFS has set aside a trust fund to incorporate black economic empowerment which sees this indigenous crop grown in traditional rural areas.

The Kenaf stalk consists of the outer “bast” fibre and the inner “core” fibre (pith). The “bast” makes up 25% of the dry weight of the processed stalk and the “core”, 65%. The remaining 10% is dust and short fibres.

The “bast” fibre can be utilised in many ways; one way in particular is the use of the fibre in the manufacture of automotive composites and automotive trim components. SFS will be a key supplier into sister company, Brits Automotive Systems (BAS).

The Kenaf “core fibre” has vast application potential. Owing to its physical structure it can absorb up to 4 times its specific weight, as opposed to the 2.5 times of woodchips and shavings. It is used to absorb, drain and neutralise liquids, sewage and chemical and / or oil spills plus it is an excellent bioremediation agent. Other applications include paper, particle board for the building industry, animal bedding, packing material, polyolefin extender and engineered lumber. Generally anywhere a lightweight non-petroleum-reliant fibrous raw material is required. It can be supplied in 30 mm chunks or it can be milled to any consistency; granular or fine powder. The powder can be used in the food, pharmaceutical, paint and cosmetic industries and as a natural dessicant.

Kenaf’s principal attributes are that it is lightweight and cost effective.
“The SFS team has made contact and met with many interested and innovative individuals and organisations, all of whom are interested in the potential of our Kenaf fibre,” says Capstick-Dale. “We are aware that developing new products with new raw material takes time, thus patience is a prerequisite. We welcome and look forward to continued and growing interest and further enquiries.”

 

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