Silk is four to 10 times more valuable than coffee, tea and vegetables when grown for export
By Zablon Oyugi
The global silk production continues to shrink due to climate change and heavy industrialisation in countries which have been known for the rearing of silkworms for the manufacture of the precious commodity.
Experts assert that of the 30 countries globally which produce silk, 16 are found in Asia accounting for about 90 per cent of the total world silk production also known as sericulture.
India which is the second largest producer of silk after China is also the biggest consumer of the commodity.
In Japan, South Korea, and Russia among other countries in temperate regions, silk production is going down steadily due to high cost of labour, heavy industrialisation and most seriously, climatic restrictions which allows only two crops per year.
In this case, Kenyan farmers have distinct advantage of practicing sericulture all through the year, yielding a stream of about 3-4 cocoon crops because of the country’s tropical climate.
In addition, rearing of silkworms is seen as less affected by a changing climate that has hurt some traditional crops such as maize, beans, coffee, cotton in Kenya because the mulberry trees, silkworms feed on are relatively drought resistant.
According to Dr Lusike Wasilwa, a plant scientist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), silk is four to 10 times more valuable than coffee, tea and vegetables when grown for export.
For Muo Kasina, director of the National Sericulture Research Center, production of silk is decreasing in China and even more speedily in Japan and though still steady in India, Kenya has great potential to contribute to the global demand of the commodity.
Already the centre in partnership with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is promoting silk production in the country by developing technologies and providing farmers with training, seeds, and access to markets.
So far, there are 600 sericulture farmers in the country, with less than 50 rearing silkworms, the rest are mulberry bush growers given the plant leaves have multiple usage including being processed into mulberry tea which is good for cancer patients.
Its berries can also be used to make mulberry jam or juice
There are a number of reasons why Kenyan farmers can make it in silk production such as ideal conditions for mulberry and silkworm rearing, simple structures for rearing the worms, cheap labour, good cocoon quality with average filament length of 1200 meters and reduced pests’ attack.
Almost all regions in Kenya can support the activity including Nairobi’s Dagoretti and Kasarani areas though the current acreage under mulberry still stands at 250 acres.
Fortunately, more farmers have continued to engage themselves in sericulture either in groups or individually being drawn in the venture by its economic potential as a tree can offer a cocoon yield of 640 kilos per acre per year.
Though the investment to start sericulture can seem to be expensive as it is estimated to be between Sh50,000 and Sh100,000 with the first-year recording not much income of about Sh56,000, there is steady increase in earnings in the subsequent years and a farmer can pocket up to Sh224,000 worth of income a year.
There is huge market in the country which is yet to be satisfied. Surveys conducted in several cloth shops in the country showed that the finer silk fibre found in the shops is imported hence the great market opportunity in Kenya.
Some of the silk market outlets in the country include Rivatex in Eldoret, Mwingi Silk Market Place in Mwingi, Kakamega Forest Silk Market Centre in Kakamega, Pendeza Weaving in Kisumu, Arabuko Sokoke Silk Market Place in Malindi, National Sericulture Station in Thika and Molo Weavers in Elburgon among others.
Currently, a kilo of dried cocoon goes for between Sh750 and Sh900.
Generally, Kenya’s annual silk production is hardly above 2 metric tonnes of dried cocoons, yet the national potential is over 10,000 metric tonnes despite its introduction in the country in 1972 through a collaboration between the government and JICA.