Behind the Ministry of Agriculture’s National Sericulture Station in Thika lies an ambitious government plan to elevate Kenya into world class silk production alongside global leaders China and India, which currently produce four-fifths of the world’s high-earning raw silk.
Over 100 Kenyan farmers’ groups, some with just a few members and some with over 200, are now producing the raw silk, which in just a few weeks earns 6 to 10 times the price of imitation silk made from oil-based polyester.
The Sericulture Station, tasked with promoting silk production and facilitating the development of sericulture in the country, has been organizing farmers into groups and carrying our farmers’ field days in the seven provinces that the station has staff. “Although we are short of staff we currently have 15 technical officers with 10 of them having undertaken specialized training in Sericulture both in Japan or India, where the farming is established and at its advanced stages.
Their interaction with the farmers is making all the difference in endearing silk farming to these farmers,” says Mr. David Mwangi the Manager at the National Sericulture Station.
The centre sells mulberry plants, the only plant that silk worms feed on, to farmers at Sh3 per seedling. The silkworm goes through five stages before they reach maturity, which is when they produce the cocoons of silk.
The female silkworms deposits 300 to 400 eggs at a time. In an areathe size of an A4 sheet of paper around 50 moths would deposit more than 20,000 eggs, each about the size of a pinhead. The female dies almost immediately after laying the eggs and the male lives only a
short while longer.
The larvae hatch in about 10 days and are about 0.6cm long. Once hatched, they are put under a layer of gauze and fed huge amounts of chopped mulberry leaves, during which time they shed their skin four times.
Steadily over the next four days a straw frame is placed over the tray of caterpillars, and each caterpillar begins spinning a cocoon, by moving its head in a "figure of 8" pattern, for it to enter in its chrysalis stage where it is in a state of sleep and casts off its skin. It normally takes 16 days in the cocoon for the worm to emerge as a winged moth.
However, if the pupa inside the cocoon stays alive it begins to secrete an alkali, which eats its way through the cocoon, ruining the silk threads. For which reason, during the commercial production of silk, only enough adult moths are allowed to emerge to ensure the continuation of the species. The remainder of the silkworms are killed by immersing them in boiling water, steaming them or drying them in an oven.
The harvested cocoons are then soaked in boiling water to soften the sericin holding the silk fibers together in a cocoon shape. The fibers are unwound to produce a continuous thread. A single thread is too fine and fragile for commercial use, so anywhere from three to ten strands are spun together to form a thicker, more practical fiber called the yarn.
The yarn is then drawn under tension through several guides and wound onto reels. Finally, the yarn is dried, and the raw silk is packed according to quality. Silkworm waste can be collected and used as manure for the mulberry plants.
Silkworms are reared in specially built houses that are rodent proof and have enough light and air. The egg period may last for 11-14 days, the larval period 24-30 days, the pupal period 12-15 days and the
adult stage 6-10days. This means that a farmer who gets hatched silkworms can rear, harvest and sell cocoons in about 5 weeks, representing a much faster business cycle that most other
In Kenya, over 100 farmers’ groups, from a few to over 200, are now engaging in the sector.
To encourage farmers to invest in sericulture the Sericulture Station buys cocoons from farmers at Sh750 for 1 kg of dry cocoons and Sh 350 for wet ones. The station is also connecting farmers with buyers in cottage industries and large textile manufacturers in Kenya, like Rivatex East Africa Limited and Rupa Cotton Mills.
The Kambogo Women's Group from western Kenya's Rachuonyo district and Kimahuri Youth United Self Help Group (KYUSHG) in Nyeri district are among the success stories in silk farming and weaving in Kenya. The 30 women began planting mulberry in 2001 and currently have over 15 acres of bushes.
The quick success of the silk farming saw them abandon sugarcane farming. From a humble trial and error investment, the group has now commercialised their activities and is selling cocoons on a monthly basis to the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Thika.
The group also offers lessons, at a small fee, to farmers who want to practice silk farming.
The benefits, said Ms Onyango, are clear: "People are willing to practice silk farming because it is less tedious, yet it brings income on a monthly basis. As a group, our monthly earnings are at least$1,000. This is a sign that Kenyans have a potential solution to rampant poverty."
Robert Wambugu, a young man from Nyeri district managed to convince 30 youth to invest in silk farming. With training from the Sericulture Station, and a grant from the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF), they invested in Mulberry farming, acquired houses for silk farming, silk machines and went into value addition through weaving, floss making and spinning the silk thread. Just two years on, the group has found a ready market in the US for their home made bed-side rugs, kikoys, and scarfs.
Silk's attractive luster and drape also makes it suitable for furnishing. It is used for upholstery, wall coverings, window treatments, when blended with another fiber, rugs, bedding and wall hangings.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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