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Natural fibres for the 3rd millennium

News International-French

5 Feb 2011

With a tropical climate good for planting a “cash crop” such as kenaf and its allied fibres, Malaysia has set its path to create home-grown technology both upstream and downstream. The strong support of the Malaysian government is boosting research institutes and industries, which may become major producers of new advanced composite materials for high-end applications.

(Published on February-March 2010 – JEC Magazine


Plant fibres, which have a long history in human civilisation, have gained economic importance and are now cultivated on a large scale globally. Kenaf (Fig. 1), jute and other allied fibres are the second most important natural fibre next to cotton. These fibres are cash crops of great socio-economic importance in countries like Bangladesh, China, India, Nepal, Thailand and Malaysia. They are also providing sustenance to small and marginal farm families.



Although the production of these fibres has been declining, noticeable efforts are being made all over the world to promote them as a “new” material source. R&D and commercialisation on all levels have resulted in innovations and have helped introduce a series of value-added products such as advanced bio-composites, advanced technical textiles, pulp & paper, bio-polymers, etc. The “new markets” for such fibres will not only provide solutions to some environmental problems, but may also offer a potentially bright future for the mass consumption of these resources. Hence, joint efforts between policy makers, industrialists and researchers are crucially needed to revitalise the use of natural fibres in order to transform these natural resources into “new industrial materials” while promoting greater use of green renewable resources.


Kenaf and allied fibres have the potential to boost Malaysia’s economic growth through intensive research and development. With the commercialization of these fibres, Malaysia will no longer depend on imported products. Today’s natural fibres can create viable products for the future.


In Malaysia, the government’s drive to promote kenaf as the nation's “third commodity crop” (palm oil and rubber being the dominant economic crops) has generated substantial growth in research and development since 2000, at both the upstream and downstream levels. The composite industry has shown great interest in using natural fibres as a replacement for synthetic fibres commonly used in their products.


Kenaf and allied fibres are being developed in close cooperation with the industry. Kenaf seems to be a priority for the Government, as shown by the number of incentives, not to mention considerable funding and the involvement of many government agencies in intensive R&D on this crop i.e. the Malaysian Timber Board, the National Tobacco Board, MARDI and the University Putra Malaysia (UPM).


In fact, kenaf planting is heavily promoted by the Government in an attempt to encourage tobacco farmers to switch to kenaf as the advent of AFTA in 2010 heralds a bleak future for the local tobacco crop planting sector. The reduction of import duties among ASEAN member countries will have severe economic repercussions on the livelihood of local tobacco farmers since local crop prices will not be able to compete with other member countries.


The East Corridor Economic Region (ECER) established by the government and supported by PETRONAS, the national petroleum company, has been allocated 10,000 hectares along the east coast of Malaysia for planting kenaf. This initiative should help raise international awareness of the multiple bene¬fits that are intrinsically linked to the use of fibres such as kenaf, jute, ramie, flax, hemp and oil palm. Special attention will be given to technological developments, socio-economical growth opportunities and practices for the evaluation of environmental benefits linked to the use of natural fibres.



The increasing price of crude oil (Fig. 2) also contributed to the hike in polypropylene prices. This will give rise to a growing demand for more economical and competitive alternative materials such as kenaf as a substitute for synthetic materials. This will also directly contribute to increasing the importance, development and use of composite materials. The Company, which relies extensively on synthetic fibres in its product line, has responded positively to this drive. It should bring greater opportunities to expand its product line.



The recent decision of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to implement a project for the development of kenaf in Malaysia lends further credibility to the Company's drive to enter the kenaf industry. Through funding by the Netherlands-based Common Funds for Commodities (CFC), of which Malaysia is a member country, the project examines the potential growth of the industrial and commercial use of kenaf in selected industrial applications.


The project’s aim is to increase the production efficiency of small kenaf production systems for specific industrial applications.


The UNIDO plans to implement this project with the joint assistance of UPM and seven participant industries. The International Jute Study Group and IBFC (China) will supervise the work.


In conjunction with the International Year of Natural Fibre 2009, Malaysia hosted the International Conference on Kenaf and Allied Fibres (ICKAF) as a platform for discussions on the potential uses of kenaf and allied fibres in high-end industrial applications. The event was organized by leading research and government bodies such as the Institute of Tropical Forestry and Forest Products (INTROP), the University Putra Malaysia, the Malaysian Timber Industry Board (MTIB), the National Kenaf and Tobacco Board (NKTB) and the International Jute Study Group (IJSGBangladesh).



ICKAF was also an opportunity for potential users from various industrial sectors to help the Malaysian government promote kenaf and other allied fibres so as to make them the third commodity plant after rubber and palm oil. So far, four companies have started manufacturing 100% kenaf-based products: 1) KEFI Malaysia which produces fibres and insulators (Fig. 3), 2) Symphony Advance which specializes in powdered kenaf for bio-composites, 3) fibre producer Kenaf Natural Fibre (KFI), and 4) Integral Wood Sdn Bhd composite material usage. This initiative promotes extensive usage in high-technology applications such as compositereinforced materials for civil works (Fig. 4), oil and gas industry applications and advanced technical textiles (Fig. 5) for various applications. SJSB is also working to introduce a kenaf insurance scheme and a protection plan that would directly benefit farmers by ensuring consistency and minimum disturbance in the supply chain, which is crucial for the sustainment and security of the industry.



Through collaboration with the relevant entities, SJSB has decided to promote their vision of supply chain management in kenaf and allied fibre commercialisation through an upstream and downstream integration approach. SJSB also focuses on developing a marketing structure to promote and enhance the market development of products using natural fibres as their main base material.