Bananas have long been a staple food in Uganda. Now a start-up in the East African nation hopes the fruit can yield even more value—and prevent waste in the process. The company has begun using a throw-away part of the plant: the stalk.
When God created bananas, He gifted humans with a nutrient-rich fruit. But it needed some adjusting to become the palatable lunchbox favorite we enjoy today. Humans crossed varieties to produce the mellow tasting, mostly seedless modern varieties we now consume by the bunches. Today’s bananas grow perfectly packaged in their own eco-friendly wrappers. They are rich in copper, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins B6 and C.
Uganda is a top-10 producer of bananas worldwide. In fact, 75% of all Ugandan farmers grow bananas. The yellow fruit—technically a berry!—nourishes people who sometimes experience food shortages. The United Nations estimates the average Ugandan consumes more than 440 pounds of bananas in a year.
A banana plant produces only one bunch in its nine-month lifetime. When farmers lop bunches off, they leave the trunks to rot.
“We generate a lot of waste from the banana gardens,” says Kimani Muturi, managing director and founder of TexFad. “If this waste can be used for textiles, then we can be able to provide a sustainable product to the world.” He decided to extract the natural fibers from the discarded stalks.
At the TexFad plant in Mukono, just east of the capital Kampala, young men pile banana plant trunks in a heap. They split them with machetes and feed them into a machine. Long, leathery, moist fibers emerge. Workers hang them to dry before processing.
TexFad is experimenting with many uses for banana fibers. Carpets, placemats, lampshades, and cloth are currently in production. The company is testing other products, such as natural fiberglass and fire starter briquettes.
Muturi’s workers are also developing hair extension products from banana stalks. “The hair extensions we are making are highly biodegradable,” Muturi says. “After using, our ladies will go and bury them in the soil, and they will become manure for their vegetables.”
TexFad has 23 employees. It made about $41,000 in sales last year—its best since its 2013 launch.
This year, Muturi projects TexFad will make 2,400 carpets—more than double last year’s output. The company expects to ship banana-fiber carpets to the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada this summer.
Muturi thinks light, organically produced banana fibers could appear in paper products like money. One day, banana fiber may even replace synthetic fibers. Muturi calls it “the fiber of the future.”