Bangladesh's golden fibre has lost its luster to plastic and other synthetic materials. Due to growing environmental and health issues, there has been increasing interest in natural fibre. For example, late in 2020, the United States Marine Corps announced interest in developing the ability to produce combat uniforms using natural fibre such as hemp-based fabrics. This relatively small division of the US military is also one of the most innovative and risk-tolerant when it comes to trying new things that might help their troops. If they are successful, they will have reignited a significant industry for natural fibre in the US. This thrust can only mean greater interest and opportunity for the other US and, more globally, allied services, not to mention a host of civil and paramilitary uniform needs out of natural fibre. But what should be Bangladesh's strategy to take advantage of renewed interest in natural fibre?
If Bangladesh keeps following the past and present strategy of producing natural fibre like jute out of labour and natural resource advantage and exporting them in raw form, economic benefit will be insignificant. Even the processing of fibre and production of finished products out of imported capital machinery through local labour will not add much value. It's time for Bangladesh to develop ideas and integrate them in producing plants and processing natural fibre-based products for the global market. Analysis indicates that the production and trading of ideas embedded in natural fibre products have the potential of opening a new horizon. Exploiting ideas out of natural fibre also has the potential of seeding the idea economy.
Let's look into what caused this interest in hemp in the USA. In the Marine Corps' own words: "Hemp [has] been used for thousands of years in textile products such as sacks, ropes, and fishnets. Today, hemp [is] woven into clothing, cordage, curtains, rope, carpets, burlap, sacking, and shoes. Clothing produced with hemp fibers are strong, UV and mold resistant, making it an excellent fiber for outdoor wear."
Compared to cotton, hemp is more environmentally friendly and less costly to cultivate; it does not require pesticides or fertilisers, needs less water, and renews the soil with each growth cycle. Its long roots prevent erosion and help retain the topsoil.
Currently, US manufacturers are required to be Berry Amendment compliant, but there are exceptions that create opportunities for non-US producers to participate in the development of these new fabrics. But more importantly, growing interest in hemp fabrics, which could be mixed with Jute and cotton, creates opportunities worldwide-particularly for Bangladesh.
Given the significant history of Bangladesh with Jute and its obvious experience in textile manufacturing, there is an opportunity to take the knowledge gained from these existing processes and apply it to a growing new industry worldwide.
Everything can be innovated, and repurposing skills and technologies into new avenues of production are a perfect example of the innovations that can bring opportunities for burgeoning economies yearning to expand and diversify their production capabilities for a global market. As we have recently noted, Bangladesh has the opportunity to employ a growing number of scientists and engineers into a market opportunity that can serve to further efforts.
And the more diverse the group in terms of knowledge, skills, and experience, the more likely that group is to produce innovative ideas. Unlike the young boys in the inspiring movie Hoop Dreams, oppressed populations can overcome any barriers through the consistent production of ideas and innovations all around them.
Using these techniques, there is no end to the number of innovations that can be incorporated into natural fibre-based production. It will scale up from the most deeply technical genetic modification of hemp, Jute and other natural fibre seeds, to be optimised for the Bangladesh's environment, to the deeply practical aspects of handling yarns, automating textile manufacture, and integrating new garment assembly and automation technology.
To clarify the point of seeding idea economy, let's draw innovation lesson from oyster: idea of vertical oyster farming. For increasing productivity and making the job easier, fisherwomen in rural India came up with grassroots innovation--vertical farming. They implemented the idea with their own knowledge, locally available inputs, and craftsmanship skills. As a result, they turned their idea into higher income. But they are unable to scale up, resulting in early saturation of income growth out of grassroots innovation. On the other hand, innovations in oyster farming in Japan has been scaled up with science and engineering. As a result, oyster fishermen in Japan and the USA have attained far higher income than India's oyster fisherwomen. Countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Nepal are poorer than Japan or Germany because they fail to scale up their ideas by integrating them into science and engineering so that a flow of ideas could be added.
To begin with, a linkage should be established with science and engineering schools to transfer knowledge and craftsmanship of natural fibre production and processing. The next step should proceed to institutional R&D for creating a flow of ideas for scaling up--through improving the quality and reducing the cost out of intellectual assets (as opposed to subsidies, tax differentials or other incentives). This endeavour will lead to a startup for large scale commercialisation or diffusion of natural fibre innovation. Yes, infrastructure matters. But it should come at a later stage--mostly at the scaling-up phase. Moreover, infrastructure should be demand-driven. There are plenty of evidence that high calibre infrastructure does not lead to the creation of an innovation economy. Malaysia and Australia are notable ones. We should focus on linking existing dots to get the most from what we already have to develop a model of scaling up natural fibre innovations for seeding idea economy.
Rokonuzzaman, Ph.D is academic and researcher on technology, society and policy. [email protected]