Sisal is the coarsest of the "hard" vegetable fibres. There are many varieties of the Agave plant throughout the tropical and sub-tropical world, especially in the Central American region, but the most important variety for fibre production on a commercial basis are AGAVE SISALANA (and its hybrids, the most common of which is known as 11648) and AGAVE FOURCROYDES (better known as henequen).
The East African sisal plant originated in the Yucatan, Mexico (and received its common name from the first port of export) and arrived in what is now Tanzania via Hamburg in 1893. A little later sisal bulbils sent from Kew Gardens were planted in Kenya.
After a difficult start, sisal production in East Africa prospered and by the 1960's Tanzania production alone totalled some 230,000 tons. Production in East Africa has contracted materially over the past three decades in response to the continuing movement in end products away from the low value agricultural twine market into considerably higher value more specialised end products, such as carpets, wire rope cores, dartboards, speciality pulps, plaster reinforcement and handicrafts.
Production in 2008 was approximately 23,000 tons per annum in Tanzania, plus some 7,000 tons of Lake Sisal (not exported), 23,000 tons in Kenya and 8-10,000 tons in Madagascar. There is also production in Southern China, unquantified, but estimated to be around 25,000 tons (for domestic consumption) and smaller quantities in Mozambique, Venezuela and Cuba.
In Mexico henequen production (largely in the Yucatan peninsular) has fallen from a peak of about 160,000 tons in the 1960's to about less than 5,000 tons today, all of which is converted into product locally.
Both China and Mexico are now large importers of sisal fibre, than growers.
The first commercial plantings in Brazil were not made until the late 1930's and the first sisal fibre exports from there were made in 1948. It was not, however, until the 1960's that Brazilian production really accelerated and the first of many spinning mills, largely devoted to the manufacture of agricultural twines, were established. Today Brazil is the major world producer of sisal at some 50-60,000 tons from a high of 130,000 tons only 5 years ago.