A growing number of Kenyan farmers are turning to silk production, in a move away from traditional cash crops such as coffee, maize, sugarcane and cotton.
The rearing of silkworms is seen as less affected by a changing climate that has hurt some traditional crops in the East African nation because the mulberry trees silkworms feed on are relatively drought-resistant.
“Production is lowering in China. It is more or less completely reduced in Japan. India is doing well in silk so we feel that Kenya can contribute to global silk demand,” said Muo Kasina, director of the National Sericulture Research Center.
The center has joined with the Japan International Cooperation Agency to promote silk production by developing technologies and providing farmers with training, seeds and access to markets.
“As of now we have more than five Japanese companies that have shown interest in Kenyan silk,” Kasina said.
“We have high technology of silk and sericulture (silk farming) but we can’t use it because Japan is too developed, and also the climate in Kenya is much better than Japan for sericulture, so that is why I want to cooperate with Kenya,” said Yuko Mizutori, one Japanese investor.
Silkworm rearing on an acre of land can fetch up to $15,000 a year, according to Kasina. That’s a small fortune for Kenyan farmers.
Newton Owino owns a silk farm in western Kenya that employs 15 workers.
“This is the 26th day and you can see the silkworms are already spinning,” he said. The cocoons are harvested and processed for the silk thread.
Last year the world’s largest silk producer, Guangdong Silk-Tex Group, announced plans to create a silk processing factory and silk farm in Kenya.
If successful, the venture is expected to create more than 300,000 jobs for Kenyans.
The venture also would significantly reduce the price of silk products by localizing the production process.
This would be a welcome change for Osman Shariff, a fabric seller in Kenya’s western city of Kisumu. He said the current cost of importing fabrics from China makes them too expensive for customers.
“We will be happy if silk will be manufactured in Kenya as we will be able to cater for our customers accordingly,” he said. It might even give Kenya’s textile industry a boost, he added.