A government project to promote butterfly farming as a way of conserving the country’s coastal forest has turned into a major earner, from sales of butterflies’ pupae to over 14 markets in the US and UK, earning local farmers more than Sh10,000 a week and now some Sh8.1m a year in exports.
The Kipepeo project, in the Arabuko-Sokoke forest, which now spans some 900 butterfly farmers four years after its set-up, was created to encourage conservation of the 40,000 hectares forest, which is the largest single block of natural coastal forest remaining in East Africa and home to many endangered flora and fauna. Nine of the butterfly species found in the forest are found nowhere else in the world.
The project has created nature-based businesses by linking butterfly farmers to international markets.
Gino Martins’ research, proving a powerful link between Kenyan food security and the country’s insect population, recently catapulted him to international fame as the recipient of a prestigious £30,000 (Sh4.2 million) Whitley Award for Nature, considered the Oscar of the conservation world. But it is through his impact on East African farming that he is now becoming a rising force.
As pastoralists in North Rift grapple with the drought that has affected over 12 million East Africans, a new model of paying pastoralists for conserving the ecosystem in reserves and parks is helping them diversify their income and end their dependence on rain fed agriculture alone.
The payment of pastoralists, mostly Maasais, has successfully been piloted in areas near Maasai Mara National Reserve and Kitengela, near the Nairobi National Park. In both areas, Maasai people have formed ‘eco-conservancies’ to protect their grazing areas for livestock and wildlife alike.
Under the payment for Ecosystem services scheme, pastoralists are given monetary incentives in exchange for allowing their land to be used for ecological services that promote conservation, for example allowing free movement of wild animals in their land.
The pastoralists voluntarily agree not to sub divide, fence or cultivate the land they are in, in return for a fee that is paid to them. The pastoralists also commit to keeping the land open for livestock and wildlife grazing.
About 357 households living in Kitengela have given about 16,800 hectares of private land under the scheme, where they are paid roughly Sh900 per acre per year. A report by the International Livestock Research Institute indicates that the income from the payment constitutes 59 per cent of the total off-farm earnings among participating households, but experts argue that the payment still remains paltry considering the sacrifices the pastoralists make.
“It’s a good venture, we are not questioning it one bit. I just think the pastoralists should be compensated more. The amount that these parks and reserves get is astronomical and so it should be reflected in the pay that they give to the pastoralists,” said Milly Ndenge an environmentalist based in Nairobi.
Under the arrangement, beneficiaries enter into a contract with The Wildlife Foundation (TWF) which also monitors adherence to the contract by the pastoralists. In the event that the beneficiary sells the land, they are removed from the records. The beneficiaries are paid in three installments, each on the last Saturday of the holiday before schools open in January, May and September, in order to cater for the school needs of the children of the beneficiaries.
The revolutionary Wildlife Lease Program was an idea inspired by The Wildlife Foundation and the Friends of Nairobi National Park in a bid to counter the loss of crucial migration lands connecting Nairobi National Park. The initiative supports the Kenya Wildlife Service’s (KWS) objective of supporting Management of the ecosystem to facilitate the conservation of species and habitats inside the park, as well as in the entire ecosystem.
However in order to ensure that the conservation payment works for the long term, experts at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) are investigating the trade offs to quantify how such interventions could be more equitable to pastoralists inhabiting these wildlife-rich areas.
The scheme comes hot on heels of a report recently released by ILRI which showed that despite government decision to invest Sh8.5bn in agriculture and funding irrigation schemes in drought ravaged parts of Turkana, the only feasible way to address future droughts is through investing in pastoralism in dry lands.
The report found that only investments aimed at increasing the mobility of livestock herders could buffer the dry lands from future food crises. It argued that herding makes better economic sense than crop agriculture in many of the arid and semi-arid lands that constitute 80 per cent of the Horn of Africa, and that supporting mobile livestock herding communities in advance and with timely interventions can help people cope the next time drought threatens, and that pastoralists switching to growing crops that require extensive investment in irrigation would be counterproductive in the long run.
Livestock constitutes an important aspect of Maasai life, with an estimated 75 per cent of the total household income in Maasai land generated from livestock, according to a report by the World Resources Institute.
Written by Bob Koigi forAfrican Laughter
On the ground, farmers catch a few female butterflies from the wild and put them in shade net cages with the right host plants. Each species of butterfly lays eggs on a different species of plant. Once the eggs hatch, farmers put the small caterpillars on host plants that they grow in nurseries, until the caterpillars create protective cocoons for themselves. At this pupa stage, they are packaged for export.
Farmers depend on the forest as a source for the adult butterflies to start the process and for a continuing source of seeds for the host plant nurseries. Most retain some butterfly pupae from each farmed generation so they have no need to catch more female butterflies from the wild after they have begun a captive population. However, they do need to capture more male butterflies from the wild to maintain genetic diversity in the captive populations.
For Fatma Abdikadir, beating the air with her homemade net is therefore far from an idle pastime as she chases a swirling black and turquoise butterfly. The mother of two earns crucial family income from her butterfly farming for the Kipepeo project.
She previously relied on the forest for firewood which she used to sell commercially, often in a cat and mouse fight with officers from the Kenya Forestry Services after the government had banned logging from the forest. “It’s funny that the same trees I felled indiscriminately are the same ones I guard jealously since they form the habitats for the butterflies and therefore my source of livelihood,” she says.
Fatma enjoys every stage of the process, and her dedication to butterflies has paid off. She now employs six youth and leads a larger nature group affiliated to the Kipepeo project.
Ken Opiyo a committee member at the Kipepeo project explains how the farming has now turned into a money spinner for most the farmers.
"A farmer needs only two butterflies to get a thousand pupae and that will be over Sh40,000 in a month - much more money than one can earn from the chicken or egg selling business," he says. Butterfly farming has also emerged as a less expensive venture to enter than other types of agriculture, since the forests provide a natural habitat where the butterflies feed and reproduce.
At the same time, the market is expanding, with butterflies increasingly valued for their beauty and uniqueness. Over the past two decades, the number of live butterfly exhibitions and centres has grown sharply around the world, with farmers in tropical countries benefitting from their access to many exotic species.
The Kenyan butterflies are exported live, as pupae, or dead, as top-quality collector specimens for research institutions. "Flying handkerchiefs," "Emperor Swallowtails" and "African Blue Tigers" are among the nine butterfly species collected at the Arabuko Sokoke forest that are not found anywhere else in the world.
More common butterflies are also collected for decorative uses, with designers from Europe also using the butterflies to come up with pattern designs. The live insects are also hatched and displayed in insect parks globally.
"Butterfly specimens here are very beautiful. Big hotels and tourists come to buy them. Rich businessmen are beginning to buy them too for beauty in the house at occasions like weddings and for education for their children," Opiyo says.
However the butterfly farming is still in its infancy in Kenya, in only Mombasa’s Arabuko Sokoke forest and Kakamega forest, and competing with established markets in Valencia, Papua New Guinea, and also the South Americas, where the farming has existed for close to three decades.
There, farmers and marketers have been able to come up with systems that are more cost-effective, and are therefore selling at lower prices than Kenya.
However, the potential remains great, with the Kenyan project managers now looking into marketing other invertebrates, such as moths, scorpions and spiders.
The value of the international butterfly trade now stands at between $100m and $150m a year.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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