From wasteful to useful: fibers and pith blocks from coconut husks

Coir fiber is now a highly demanded export item because of its unique properties.

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“I love to play with machines and at that time I couldn’t afford to pay for the imported ones. So, I simply took advantage of my inquisitive nature and found out everything about the machines I need!”: Mostafiz Ahmed, owner of Natural Fibres.

Coconut coir, an environmentally-friendly, strong and durable natural fiber, is a small industry in Bangladesh valued at less than USD 10 million and employing approximately 25,500 workers, the majority of which are women. Once considered as a waste product, the coconut’s outer cover (coir fiber) is now a highly demanded export item because of its unique properties that make it well-suited for nautical, agricultural and industrial uses and as a substitute for jute in product lines such as geotextiles and landscaping. The corky substance between coir fibers in the outside layer of the husk of the coconut (coco pith) is emerging as an important input in horticultural production, increasing domestic and international export demand. USAID’s Agricultural Value Chains (AVC) project recognized the increasing global demand for coir products as an opportunity for private sector investment into Bangladesh’s domestic coir industry. Additionally, promoting the production of coir fiber and pith benefits other AVC value chains because of its use as a medium for growing seedlings for flowers, vegetables, and other horticultural crops. As such, AVC has been working with a local coir manufacturer, Natural Fibres, to strengthen the coir value chain as well as diversify the coir pith products produced domestically. AVC invested in developing Natural Fibres’ organizational capacity to produce quality coir pith block products and improve marketing to target demand in national and international markets.

Mostafiz Ahmed, owner of Natural Fibres, started his career with a small coconut oil business. Since then he has gradually expanded into other coconut products as he learned more about the usefulness of the various parts of the coconut fruit. From a local boatman, Mostafiz came to know that the coconut husk has been treated as a complete waste product, and that many farmers must pay to have the husks disposed of as they take up too much land. Mostafiz saw an opportunity to turn what others saw as waste into a new business venture. He began collecting the coconut husks at little to no cost from surrounding farms and gathering information about coir fiber and coco pith processing machines.

While he could not find an existing processed coir business in Bangladesh, he identified appropriate machines in India, used in the coco-fiber based cottage industry. Mostafiz visited India to view and study the required machines for processing coir fiber and coco pith. He came to an arrangement with the factory owner that he could bring a few of his men to observe and learn how to operate the machineries from the Indian owner. He then made the machine himself with just a few amateur sketches. Recently, he completed designing the third generation machine, which improves efficiency to minimize his cost of production. When asked about how he manages to make these machines without any technical knowledge, Mostafiz replied, “I love to play with machines and at that time I couldn’t afford to pay for the imported ones. So, I simply took advantage of my inquisitive nature and found out everything about the machines I need!”

Mostafiz also faced a lot of challenges, including lack of technical know-how, bureaucratic hurdles, taxation, raw material procurement, and unreliable electricity, which continuously hindered his ability to grow his business. To overcome these challenges, Mostafiz pursued opportunities to network with other traders and processors of coir. USAID’s Agricultural Value Chains (AVC) project supported Mostafiz to visit the International Trade Fair Ambiente Messe Frankfurt, Frankfurt, Germany in February 2015 and there he met a Korean client who was interested in procuring the coco pith blocks. The buyer funded his own visit to Bangladesh and was so impressed by the quality that he placed an order of coir pith blocks valued at USD 6,850. Over the last two years the order from South Korea grew nearly 10 folds, to USD 60,000 and Mostafiz made his first shipment of coir pith block to South Korea for over 16 ton of pith blocks in early March, 2018. In mid-March, he will ship another 44 ton to South Korea. Mostafiz’s team is also preparing samples for prospective buyers in Germany.

AVC also supported Mostafiz in upgrading his machinery and processing capacity by procuring a 5kg pith block machine and a grow bag machine, as well as providing set up and installation support including extensive training in the use of each machine to maximize the quality and volume of production. These machines are now being operated in Bagerhat, allowing Mostafiz to expand his business. Mostafiz believes that coir products have great potential both in local and international markets. The increased use of coco pith in soil can enrich the fertility of the soil, enhance its water holding capacity and air porosity. As entrepreneurs like Mostafiz continue to expand the domestic coco pith sector and popularize the products’ use, farmers will improve their productivity both in terms of quantity and quality in horticulture, floriculture and livestock. Mostafiz plans to expand his business further by venturing into making ropes, mats and geo textiles from coco fiber, which can be used to prevent soil erosion, to harvest algae, and increase grape vine productivity.

This initiative is the first of its kind in Bangladesh and is contributing to a new business channel in the coir value chain and an export market for Bangladeshi producers. Through AVC’s support, Natural Fibers has created 75 full time jobs at the factory level, directly benefitting 75 households. Mostafiz hopes to establish Bangladesh as one of the sources of coir-based products in the export market and to create demand for coir products locally. The Government of Bangladesh recently declared 20 percent ‘cash incentive’ on export of coir products. This will help boost this sector and has been possible due to relentless effort by Mostafiz Ahmed. Looking forward, Mostafiz’s 10-year business plan is to crowd in a network of coco pith producer groups, traders, and processors to invest in and leverage upgraded machinery to serve a growing domestic and global market for coconut-based agricultural products. Through improved marketing practices developed in partnership with AVC, he plans to promote the use of coco pith and coir fiber products among smallholder farmers to improve agricultural productivity, and open new opportunities for seedling production.