Butterfly farmers strike gold in butterfly conservation project

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.

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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