The Philippines supplies 85% of the world’s Abaca demand. Trailing close behind are Ecuador and Costa Rica. It is one of the top fiber exports of the Philippines. The Musa textilis, a close cousin of our table banana, is known more for its fiber than its fruit. From its stalk comes the king of natural fibers, the Manila hemp. The plant is cultivated from runners and shoots. And can be grown all year round. The appearance of a flagleaf signals that it is ready for harvesting. The trunk of the plant is cut and the reddish-brown outermost sheath is skinned to produce Bacbac or Havana hemp. Not susceptible to colorants, Bacbac is used mainly for baskets, furniture and handicraft items. The white inner sheath is then stripped manually or by machine to free the more water resilient and durable Lupis fiber. The finer, more lustrous and lighter in color the fiber, the more value it has. The quality will depend upon the method of stripping.
Abaca fiber is 3x stronger than silk or cotton. This indigenous species of banana have been cultivated in our islands long before the era of Western colonization. Particularly resistant to salt water, it was used for fishing nets and cordage. It is also prized for its gossamer fibers used in the making of textiles, teabags and paper of the highest quality. Abaca production in the country have presently tapered due to different problems such as the prevalence of Abaca Bunchy Top Virus (ABTV) and the lack of research for Abaca product development. And though Abaca is native to our country, the knowledge can easily be developed in any tropical and humid state. Our lack of importance for this crop can eventually lead other countries to overtake the Philippines in its production and growth.
Before the arrival of advanced technology, Abaca was only used for textiles, slippers, ropes, hats, and handicrafts. When cheaper and stronger synthetic fibers came into focus, Abaca faded to the background. But with the increase in environmental consciousness and the need for sustainable raw materials, the use of this tensile fiber has advanced. In 2004, Chrysler-Damlier began studying the use of Abaca fibers embedded in the Propylene (PP) thermoplastic used in most car exteriors. Having shown a tensile strength similar to glass fibers, the PP composite is also much lighter in weight which would mean less use of fuel and energy for the vehicle. The automotive industry is looking towards more reinforced composites with this fiber.
The demand is great but the supply is wanting.
Abaca development and genomic studies will ultimately open the door to many possibilities beyond the current demands.