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Fibre crops


There are a number of different fibres found in plants:

  • Bast fibres e.g. flax, hemp, jute and kenaf
  • Leaf fibres e.g. sisal, palm
  • Seed fibres e.g. cotton, capok
  • Fruit fibres – coconut
  • Wood fibres e.g. pinewood, Baobab bark

This page will look at some fibre plants.

Source: “Classification and essential parts of fibre crops”, a brochure available at

International business environment

  • Until relatively recently, production of clothes, cloths, carpets, cordage, paper and ships’ sails, was entirely based on natural fibres. With the development of synthetic fibres derived from petroleum, the use of natural fibres began to decline.
  • For many developing countries natural fibres are of major economic importance, including cotton in parts of West Africa, jute in Bangladesh and sisal in Tanzania. Across the developing world, producers and processors of natural fibres face the challenge of developing and maintaining markets in which they can compete effectively with synthetics.
  • Concerns over the environmental cost of synthetic fibre production have created a renewed interest in crop (and animal) fibres.
Source: [website now defunct]

Local business environment

  • Fibre plants grow in most ecosystems of South Africa – the subtropical low lying coastal plains, the warm bushveld and arid half desert areas, while unique species are adapted to the wetlands and poorly drained areas.
  • To develop the potential of indigenous plants for fibre production, a close working and financial relationship between the new farmer, the fibre industry and agricultural scientist must be developed. The establishment of an agro-fibre-industry that can independently manage its affairs and solve its own problems will be the ideal.
Source: ARC-IC



The stringy inner bark yields a particularly strong and durable fibre that provides things such as rope, thread, strings for musical instruments, and a paperstock tough enough for bank notes.

Source: “Classification and essential parts of fibre crops”, a brochure available at


See separate page.

The first step in the processing of picked cotton takes place at the ginnery where the fibre, about 37% of the total mass of the cotton, is separated from the seed.

Source: “Classification and essential parts of fibre crops”, a brochure available at


  • Flax, Linum usitatissimum L., is one of the oldest fibre crops. Its fibre is used to make linen and its seeds yield linseed oil.
  • High quality fibres are found in the upper third of the stem to the base. The fibre is bast-type (buried within the bark of the stem) and must be retted to release fibres that are then bleached before use.
Source: “Classification and essential parts of fibre crops”, a brochure available at


  • Find “Production guidelines for flax (Linum usitatissimum L.)” on the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) website,
  • Order online at, call 012 842 4017 or send an email to stoltze [at] for the following publication, available from the ARC Agricultural EngineeringAgro-processing of Textile Crops (Cotton, flax, hemp, sisal).
  • Find notes on flax on the ARC-Industrial Crops campus pages on
  • – the Flax Council of Canada. Included in the information on the website are notes on growing flax and the usage of the plant. Available from the Council is a flax focus newsletter.


There seems to be never-ending list of benefits of the hemp plant. The following products are manufactured from hemp in the USA:

  • Accessories: Back packs, bags, beanies, belts, briefcases, caps, cheque book covers, gloves, guitar straps, hair ties, hats (knit, crocheted, fabric), hip packs, jewellery, luggage, purses, scarves, shawls, shoe laces, shoes, socks, ties, travel kits, wallets, watchbands
  • Animal Care: Beds, bedding, feed, leashes & collars, treats
  • Apparel: Baby clothes, bathrobes, dresses, jackets, jeans, lingerie, overalls, pants, shirts, shorts, skirts, suits, sweaters, T-shirts
  • Cosmetics: Aromatherapy mists, hair conditioners, lip balms, lotions, massage oils, perfume, salves, shampoos, soaps
  • Foods: Beer, breads, burgers, cheese, chips, chocolate bars, coffees, cookies, defatted hempseed meal, dehulled hempseeds, dry mixes – cake, cookie, pancake & pizza dough, energy bars, flour, hummus, ice cream, lollipops, nut bars, nut-butter, oil, pasta, pastilles, patô, pretzels, roasted seeds, salad dressings, soda drinks, spiced hemp seeds, tea, toasted shelled hempseed, wine, wraps
  • Housewares: Aprons, blankets, curtains, couch covers, furniture, hammocks, potholders, pillows, placemats, napkins, tablecloths, towels
  • Paper: Art papers, bond, bookmarks, books, cigarette papers, corrugated board, envelopes, invitations, journals, magazines, postcards, posters, stationery, writing pads, books, magazines, newsletters, research papers
  • Raw Hemp: Bast fibre: batting (tow) long fibre (line or sliver) for industry & craft use, seed stock & seed grain
  • Sports Equipment: Frisbees, skateboards, snowboards, surfboards
  • Spun Hemp: Twine, rope, yarn, webbing and embroidery thread
  • Textiles: Hand woven & mill loomed fabrics – blended silks to canvas, various weights & textures, colours, patterns, stripes & plaids; knits; finishing services; non-woven matting (replaces fibreglass), carpets, rugs
  • Other: Dolls, candles, coffee filters, drums, picture frames, teddy bears, toys


Its perceived relationship with marijuana causes problems. Both come from the plant family Cannabis sativa L., but from different varieties.

The commercial cultivation of hemp in South Africa is prohibited by the following legislation: (i) The Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act, 1992 (Act No 140 of 1992) which describes hemp as dagga. (ii) Medicines and Related Substances Act, 1965 (Act No 101 of 1965) (iii) The Environmental Conservation Act, 1989 (Act No 73 of 1989). Despite this, hemp products are amazingly in high demand, and perhaps for this reason our country does not charge any tariff for hemp imports. 

The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) regulates the issuing of cannabis licences and the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) regulates the issuing of hemp licences. In total DALRRD has issued over 371 hemp permits to South African farmers and SAHPRA has issued 102 cannabis licences across the country (Hemp 4 Life, 2024).

The product is mostly grown in South Africa mainly for experimental or research purposes. Producer challenges are covered in the parliamentary committee presentation (27 Feb 2024) at

Producer points of interest:

Hemp’s deep roots aerate the soil. After the harvest, its roots and discarded leaves replenish the soil with nutrients. Its early growth and thick canopy choke off weeds, and it breaks disease cycles that reduce the yields of other crops. It can also be grown largely without pesticides and herbicides.

It works well as a rotational crop and soil rehabilitator, soil erosion preventor, cash generator, and organic crop enhancer. The hemp crop is labour intensive, low input, high-yielding, a beneficial companion crop to pineapple and chicory.

The commercial production of this crop has great potential for job creation in rural areas. The development of traditional agriculture based crops such as hemp would help encourage the rural regeneration and small-scale rural industries. Raw materials would be provided to various sectors such as paper, textiles, composites, industrial oils, animal bedding, fibreboards etc.

Sources: Dr Yoseph Beyene, ARC-IC, Rustenburg, CSIR, Diverse International Holdings


Some articles


“It creates a negative carbon footprint, and is highly versatile. Hempcrete can be used as insulation, flooring, roofing, and even drywall. It is fireproof, waterproof and rot proof provided it is above ground. It is easier to make than concrete, as well as more durable. It is 3x more resistant to earthquakes as compared to regular concrete”.

Find the article “Hempcrete Could Change How We Build Everything” on www. Hempcrete is similar to concrete but incorporates hemp.


A member of the hibiscus family (Hibiscus cannabinus L), Kenaf is related to okra and cotton.

This source of natural fibre has roots in ancient Africa and Asia where, 4000 years ago, it was cultivated for cordage. Although Kenaf originated in Africa, the modern cultivation is new to Southern Africa. It has been cultivated in the United States and parts of Asia for decades.

Today it is increasingly being viewed world-wide as a sustainable, eco-friendly alternative to petroleum-reliant, synthetic raw materials.

  • Kenaf is a light-weight, cost-effective natural fibre that is sustainable, economically viable and ecologically friendly.
  • Because of its low-maintenance and drought-tolerant nature, and because of its short 3 to 4 month growing season, Kenaf is suitable as an interim crop.
  • Kenaf is an excellent rotation crop for maize, groundnuts, etc. It enriches the land in which it grows.
  • Kenaf versatility is unmatched. The range of value added products Kenaf can be used for is massive. These are products of the future. • Many of the end products utilising Kenaf can be recycled or are biodegradable, complying with European legislation pertaining to automobile ‘end-of-life’.
  • Kenaf has the highest CO2 absorption capacity (one ton of Kenaf absorbs 1.5 tons of atmospheric CO2), thereby helping to prevent global warming
Source: [website now defunct] 




The main production areas have been in the Limpopo Province and KwaZulu-Natal, with annual yields of up to 5000 tons of fibre. The majority of this fibre was processed locally but any surplus was successfully exported to many overseas countries where it was well received because of the high quality of South African grown fibre.

Apart from providing excellent job opportunities, the crop:

  • Grows throughout the year
  • Can be harvested throughout the year
  • Has an unlimited local market (for the fibre)
  • Has no appeal to thieves
  • Receives a good final price.

The fibre is used in the production of twines and ropes, buffs and carpets, and numerous other minor uses such as the manufacture of dartboards, mattress pads, and crafts. The sisal bowl is most popular for bird nesting purposes, and the attractive sisal poles are widely used in game parks for bomas and hides.

Source: Clive S Henderson, National Sisal Marketing Committee
  • Two different brochures with the same name, “Sisal” and “Sisal”, and “Sisal production guidelines” can be found at
  • Find the notes on sisal on the ARC Industrial Crops pages at
  • Order online at, call 012 842 4017 or send an email to stoltze [at] for the following publication, available from the ARC Agricultural EngineeringAgro-processing of Textile Crops (Cotton, flax, hemp, sisal).
  • The DALRRD-NAMC TradeProbe Issue 85 (May 2021) includes the report “Market analysis for sisal”.
  • Find the feature “Revitalising sisal cultivation to boost community in North West” in the CSIR‘s ScienceScope, Volume 11 Number 2.
  • Nurse, E. 2015, November 20. “Sisal: The most useful plant you’ve never heard of”. CNN. Available at



National strategy and government contact

  • Find information on the different directorates at the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) at
  • Department of Health Hemp is not legalised and is still declared a weed. Obtain a permit from the Department of Health to grow hemp commercially.

Role players

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ARC-Industrial Crops (ARC-IC) – The institute is responsible for all fundamental and applied research of interest to the fibre crop industries, such as cotton, sisal, hemp, flax and alternative fibre crops (including indigenous ones) in all the production areas of South Africa. Training courses for the production on flax, cotton, hemp and sisal are compiled according to requests.

Websites and publications

Refer to the websites and publications listed earlier on this page.

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