A forest of leaf-like nipa palm trees and a man cutting them.

Hao on using what’s left after harvest

The endless belts of nipa palm were just another part of the scenery during Hao’s youth in Vietnam. As an engineer at IKEA he became determined to use this ubiquitous plant for products. We asked Hao about the nipa palm stalks left after harvest for LUSTIGKURRE baskets.

The water-loving nipa palm grows along the coastlines and mangroves of the Indian and the Pacific Ocean and forms extensive belts along creeks and rivers. The long and fast-growing leaves are traditionally used as a roofing material. Growing up in Vietnam, the never-ending stretches of nipa were something Hao saw almost everywhere.

IKEA has a long tradition of using natural plant fibres as a beautiful and sustainable way of bringing nature into our homes. As an engineer at IKEA, Hao Nguyen Van helps develop the best ways to use natural fibres like water hyacinth, cork, banana fibres, and rattan for IKEA products. Before moving to Sweden he left Hanoi for Ho Chi Minh City in the south and wondered if there was a way to use the nipa palm leaves for IKEA products. He took the idea to one of the biggest suppliers only to realise that the palm leaves were simply too fragile when dried. But he could stop thinking about the nipa and kept at it, and one day the supplier came back with an unusual idea.

“They suggested looking into the stalks left after the farmers have harvested the leaves. I was very excited, and we went to visit one of the farmers in the Mekong Delta,” says Hao.

A smiling man holding a tree trunk in front of a forest of leaf-like nipa palm trees.

Above: Hao when he visited one of the farmers in Vietnam.

Only the leaves and flower stalk grow above the surface, and the trunk and the strong root system is under water. After the farmers have harvested the long palm leaves, the lower parts of the stalks are left to slowly decay or are removed to help the new young leaves grow faster. Together with the farmers, they started harvesting the leftover stalk to see if the natural fibre could be used for IKEA products.

“It is actually pretty simple, and there are no chemicals involved in the process. We cut the stalks and slice the soft fibre inside. After drying in the sun for up to ten days the natural fibre is ready for weaving,” says Hao.

A man with a dirty shirt and sunburnt arms cutting a tree trunk vertically with a machete.

A forest of nipa palm and a man cutting off a tree.

Above: The leftover stalks after harvest.

Hao sees many benefits with the material. The soft fibres are up to two meters long, and very strong when twisted. The beautiful light brown surface creates a unique expression. It can be used both for hand weaving and machine weaving and even for surface lamination.

“The best part is that we utilise what is left after harvest, and IKEA is the first company to use the nipa palm stalk fibres. When we remove the last part of the stalk we also help the palm tree to grow back faster,” says Hao.

A smiling man looking at brownish nipa palm leaves.

Portrait of a smiling man surrounded by brownish nipa palm leaves.

Above: After drying in the sun the natural fibre is ready for weaving.

The soft and strong fibre is perfect for twisting and weaving, and Hao as brought dried nipa palm fibres and two prototypes of coming IKEA products with him—a basket and a magazine holder—to show what the material looks like.

“I am very pleased that LUSTIGKURRE soon will reach our stores. Nipa is not only a beautiful and soft natural fibre but also a renewable and affordable residue material. In the future I hope we can use nipa palm for rugs and laminated surfaces,” says Hao.

A man working a tree trunk with a machete in front of the sunny entrance of a house.

Any other new fibres you would like to try?

“Right now I think a lot about corn. The husks left after harvest are usually thrown away and I would like to find a way to use that residue for wrapping, for example, says Hao.

The LUSTIGKURRE baskets and magazine holders are handmade by skilled artisans in Vietnam and will be in stores October 2020.