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Alex Odundo's sisal twine manufacturing machines.

ONE BROAD, POINTED LEAF plucked from the sisal plant can earn a Kenyan farmer 5 shillings, or about $0.05 USD. But the same leaf, processed, spun into twine and spooled can sell for 100 shillings, or $1.15. That added value looked like opportunity to Alex Odundo, a Kenyan engineer and inventor who has developed three machines to turn sisal into twine.

As a child, Odundo would sit with his mother and strip off the husk of the sisal leaf by hand. That is how Kenyan farmers and their families usually process the leaf, if they process it at all. The slow work inspired the idea to automate the process. Fifteen years and many prototypes later, with a degree from Kisumu Polytechnic and a family of his own, Odundo has developed the machines and he sells them through his company Sifa Machinery.

Now, he would like to mass produce them and sell them more cheaply to farmers. Here's a snapshot of what could be the future of sisal twine production in rural Kenya.

SISAL DECORTICATOR

The decorticator is a cylindrical drum in a frame with blades that strip the green husk from the sisal leaf and grind the inner fiber into strands.

It has a five- to six-horsepower motor that can be either diesel or gasoline powered. The machines cost $500 to $700 to make, depending on the model, and Odundo sells them for $850 to $1,200. The prices should drop with mass production.

SISAL TWINE MACHINE

The twine machine spins the sisal fibers into a thin twine. It is composed of a 0.5-horsepower electric motor, a fly arm, bobbin, hub, friction belt and a smaller feeding motor of 1/16 horsepower. It is small enough for a farmer to use on the doorstep, Odundo says. It costs him about $350 to make by hand and he sells it for $600.

SPOOLING MACHINE

The sisal rope spooling machine packs the spun twine to prepare it for sale. It can spool different quantities and includes a two-horsepower motor that spins a couple of rollers. It costs Odundo about $1,000 to make and he sells it for $1,400.

THE BOTTOM LINE

With one decorticator and two twine machines, a farmer can grind and spin 120kg of sisal into twine in eight hours. That amount could sell for $120, Odundo says.

SISAL THE SAVIOR

Odundo has called sisal a savior to Kenya and it's not hard to see why. The sisal is an agave thought to be native to the dry Yucutan Peninsula of Mexico, and it thrives in semi-arid climates. More than half of Kenya is semi arid. So, a plant like sisal that does not wither during long droughts really could be a boon to farmers. But only if they can process it efficiently.

"Despite sisal being a potential cash crop, no one was willing to plant more because of the processing methods being used. These were labor intensive with poor-quality products," Odundo told E4C by email.

Now, small farm holders are planting more and making more money using this new sisal twine manufacturing equipment, Odundo says.

THE FUTURE OF SISAL TWINE

Odundo has become something of a media sensation since he presented his decorticator at Maker Faire Africa in 2010. Since then, he became a TED Fellow in 2012. Moving forward, he has plans to improve the machines.

THE BOTTOM LINE

WITH ONE DECORTICATOR AND TWO TWINE MACHINES, A FARMER CAN TRANSFORM:

120kg

OF SISAL INTO TWINE IN EIGHT HOURS

THAT AMOUNT COULD SELL FOR

$120

ODUNDO SAYS. ALL COSTS CONSIDERED, THE DAILY PROFIT COULD BE

50% OF THE INVESTMENT
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Title Annotation:ENGINEERING FOR CHANGE
Comment:Alex Odundo's sisal twine manufacturing machines.(ENGINEERING FOR CHANGE)
Author:Goodier, Rob
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Geographic Code:6KENY
Date:Nov 1, 2013
Words:605
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