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close this bookCERES No. 121 (FAO Ceres, 1988, 50 p.)
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Making paper from cotton stalks

Mali, like most African countries, imports 100 per cent of its paper, but it is one of the world's poorest countries. These imports drain a large portion of its very limited foreign currency reserves and thus constitute a serious handicap for the country's schools, literacy training, and publishing.

But how can Mali possibly produce its own paper? In other African countries, such as Nigeria and Cameroon, paper-making from wood pulp devours energy, is a tremendous water and air pollutant, and has devastated the countries' forests. In view of these disastrous consequences in humid equatorial regions, a paper industry in a Sahelian country overcome by drought and desertification seems inconceivable.

Against all odds, the National Research Institute for Stockraising, Forestry, and Hydrobiology at Bamako, the capital city, has a "paper workshop" where engineers are experimenting with paper-making from alternative raw materials, trying different technologies.

Non-woody plant matter, such as gumbo, "dah" (or kenaf), banana tree, jute, bagasse, or cotton stalks, offer interesting possibilities. In a country whose largest export crop is cotton, cotton stalks, considered plant residue, could represent an additional source of income for producers. Every year, Malian farmers burn or bury more than 200 000 metric tons of cotton stalks; unlike millet or maize stalks, cotton stalks cannot be used for animal feed.

Mr Ousmane Samassu, a member of the Forestry Commission who for many years has been taking part in the research, tried to grind millet stalks in two experimental workshops at Zangasso and Fonfana in the cotton-producing regions of Su and Sikasso, but the process proved too long, too difficult, and too unprofitable.

He was not discouraged. As a member of AMADE, a Malian NGO for development with close links to CIMADE, he turned to the North-South Foundation in Paris where he obtained a grant which enabled him to continue his research on paper making from plant residues and non woody matter at the Tropical Forestry Technical Centre (CTFT) at Nogent sur Marne, in France.

A trip to India offered promise for South-South cooperation. Indeed, India's numerous small-scale paper mills are using non-woody products as raw materials: jute stalks, sugar cane fibre, and rags, requiring simple techniques and abundant unskilled labour. Five per cent of the country's paper consumption is produced in this way. A small mill can produce 200-1 500 kg of paper a day.

The manufacture of paper from cotton stalks has the advantage of causing hardly any pollution and requiring very little water. This is important in a country like Mali, where the climate is uncertain.

The paper-making process is semi-mechanized: operations such as crushing and pressing can be done manually. The basic equipment is a hydraulic press, which may be accompanied by a shredder, a digester, and a grinder.

The paper thus produced is stronger than that obtained from wood pulp. Its only drawback is its rather less clean appearance.

Since June 1987, Mr Samassu, with the support of AMADE and the Implementation and Technological Exchange Group, Paris, has been applying the results of his research in Mali. His new paper workshop at Bamako will initially be used for demonstration purposes, aiming at producing 50 tons of paper a year. A small-scale project, this experiment will be used as an incentive to develop small decentralized paper-manufacturing units.

In parallel with paper production and marketing, Mr Samassu insists on continuing his research on high-yield methano-chemical paper pulps, using soda, lime potash, and ammonia. So far, although soda and lime are the most efficient, potash and ammonia leave residues that can be used as fertilisers. And potash, which is almost completely assimilated, causes no pollution. Before making a final choice, a consumption record will be compiled for each chemical used.

Naturally, important financial investments are required for the equipment. The EEC, the World Bank, and UNIDO have already been contacted. Mr Samassu also favours cooperation between India and Mali. With this in view, an agreement has been signed by AMADE and a New Delhi NGO, the Society for Development Alternatives, marking the beginning of South-South cooperation for small-scale paper production units.

However, Mr Samassu is aware of the difficulties of his project, particularly with regard to marketing and distribution. In its first year the workshop will produce cartons, cardboard boxes, and cardboard folders. The market already exists: from 1963 to 1980 paper and cardboard box consumption increased by 70 per cent. Since then, the industry has been seeking reliable clients: the Government; EDIM (Mali's largest printers), SOMOPAC (the major packaging industry), and joint ventures. It must also diversify its production and become flexible enough to meet new demands for writing paper, egg cartons, fruit containers, thick cardboard doors, and partitions.

Once it has been proved that the creation of a small paper industry is a viable proposition in a Sahelian country, the experiment will bring new hope to the Sahel and even to the whole of West Africa, where, as yet, there is no paper industry.

Anne Kraft