In October 2008, a delegation from the Banana Textile Project in Japan visited Rwanda and made presentations about the possibility of developing banana fiber commercially, hence the birth of the local chapter of the project, writes By Moses Opobo.
The Banana Fiber Project in Rwanda is wholly given to the production of woven textiles from banana fibers using a loom.
The banana crop is, without a doubt, one of Rwanda’s major food crops. For the record, the country is the second largest producer of bananas in East Africa after Uganda, with an estimated annual production of 2,500,000 tons. Historically, however, the stalks of the banana plant had never been used for any particular purpose after harvesting of the fruit. Well tell a lie; they were used by small boys to make banana fiber footballs!
In October 2008, a delegation from the Banana Textile Project in Japan visited Rwanda and made presentations about the possibility of developing banana fiber commercially, hence the birth of the local chapter of the project. The Banana Fiber Project in Rwanda kicked off almost immediately, registering the full support of the Government, the Kigali University of Science and Technology (KIST), a local textile company, and the Ministry of Education.
The pilot projects kicked off in Ngoma, Muhanga and Kayonza (Rwamagana) districts, with some of the densest populations of the banana plant. The Japanese found some good news here; a few vulnerable women had already organised themselves into small cooperatives, making a few handcrafts out of banana fiber, though only at cottage level.
“We used to use our hands and feet for braiding the fiber, which was not only tedious, but also time wasting,” recalls Alivera Kabudeyi, an elderly trainee at the Banana Fiber Project training camp in Kimironko. Her Cooperative, COVEPAKI, in Ngoma district, relied on these rudimentary techniques to produce low-quality craft pieces like table mats, hats and packaging boxes, which they sold cheaply to local buyers.
“To dye the fiber, we would pound it in a mortar with the other materials, but now we have spinning machines that have eased our work.”
Kabudeyi is among fifteen individuals currently undergoing a one-month of intensive training in fiber harvesting and processing in Kimironko. The first batch of fifteen trainees completed their training earlier in the month and are now back in their respective cooperatives. With improved looming and tapestry skills, of course!
The training project has taken out a huge guest house, Ninza Courts, for the lessons, both practical and theory. Walking into Ninza Courts, it is looms and spinning machines everywhere you turn. One will be excused for thinking they just strolled into a showroom dealing in the same.
All trainees are housed and fed here free of charge for the entire duration of the training, after which they are expected to return to their respective cooperatives and disseminate the same skills to new beneficiaries.
It is the same route that Kalisa Amani, the bubbly training instructor did after returning from her short course in processing banana fiber and textile design at the Tama Art University in Japan. “The training started with the extraction of banana fibers, and moved on to the dying process using natural dyes,” she reminisces of her 2010 training. She practiced making thread with a spinning wheel, and how to weave textiles using a loom.
Within this limited time (one month), Amani couldn’t spend too long to master each process. Still, it was an invaluable opportunity for her to learn the basic skills to bring back home for the purpose of building a banana textile industry in Rwanda. Two years on, there is some evidence that her trip (and efforts) were not in vain.
“A banana stalk in the villages now goes for Rwf200, can you imagine that? Before, it was treated as rubbish,” she reveals, adding that a kilogram of processed fiber now attracts the staggering figure of Rrf12,000.
No wonder, I found the trainees congregated around her like moths around a beacon of light. They practically hung onto her every word as she demonstrated how to manipulate the spinning machine.
Ideally an initiative for vulnerable women, the Banana Fiber Project in Kigali has however not gone ahead to shut out interested men. Out of the fifteen trainees in class, three were men. One of them, Alphonse Niyigena, was all praises for the Japanese initiative: “In the cooperative I make more money. The training has helped build our capacity, the equipment helps us produce more, and better quality. The project also secures markets for our products in Japan.” Alphonse has even more reason to smile. “I have managed to build a brick house of 56 iron sheets in Rwamagana,” he says, smiling from ear to ear.
One can only imagine how much more value will be attached to the banana plant after the skills acquired in this training have trickled down in the local banana producing communities.
For Kabudeyi, it is double joy; not only is she now an “expert” on the banana fiber, knowledgeable in the new economic potential it presents, she will also be kissing goodbye to the old fashioned hands-to-feet loom. The project has not only facilitated her training here at Ninza Courts, it also built and equipped a fiber processing factory for COVITEK, the Ngoma-based cooperative to which she belongs.