Farmers in Kenya are swapping high-risk crops for silkworms. In a bid to find a profitable crop to sustain their livelihoods, many farmers are turning to silk production and ditching traditional cash crops such as coffee, maize, sugar cane, and cotton.

Kenya is now emerging as a new silk-producing country. Also known as sericulture, the rearing of silkworms for raw silk production is becoming popular in Kenya, as the country is less susceptible to severe conditions.

Silkworms thrive in dry areas with a temperature range of 70 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. They need mulberry trees to survive. These trees are drought tolerant and resistant to cold and hence they can flourish well in many parts of Kenya. Kenya is an ideal country for sericulture.

Muo Kasina, scientist and director of the National Sericulture Research Centre explained the potential for silk production in Kenya.

Silk production has been steadily decreasing in recent years in countries, such as China and Japan, where it was originally produced. While India is doing well in its silk production, Kasina stated, “Kenya can contribute to global silk demand.”

More importantly, sericulture offers local farmers a stable source of income, which is more desirable, compared to other traditional crops that have proved unpredictable.

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“For the first time we have a crop that can give farmers income after every 3 weeks,” said Kasina. This is “because you do silkworm rearing for 2 weeks and harvest in the third week once you deliver your produce,” he added.

An attractive incentive for Kenyan farmers to swap high-risk crops for silkworms that sericulture is also less expensive. There is less capital expenditure and less labor intensive.

Silkworm rearing on an acre of land can earn up to US$15,000 annually. This is a small fortune on a single acre for Kenyan farmers.

Another incentive to turn to sericulture is that silk has many uses and hence will be in constant demand. Besides textile and fabrics, silk is also used making contact lenses, films, soaps, skin products, and toothpaste.

Newton Owino is one of the local farmers who have turned to silkworm farming. He owns a silk farm in western Kenya and employs 15 people.

Owino rears the Bombyx mori, a silkworm species domesticated in China more than 5,000 years ago. “This is the 26th day and you can see the silk worms are already spinning. They are making cocoons,” said Owino as he explained the production cycle.

The National Sericulture Research Centre is offering farmers subsidies, plants, and mulberry cuttings at subsidized rates. It is working to train farmers and help them identify markets.

The center is also collaborating with Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to promote sericulture in Kenya. Their joint initiative helps Kenyan farmers to form groups or sericulture villages, to set up a common collection center for the cocoons, and to link farmer with markets.

“We have been working to develop technologies for silk and so we can give farmers the seeds and have the appropriate market and regulations for silk,” said Kasina.

So far, the center has found more than five Japanese companies interested in Kenyan silk.

A Japanese investor from Galali Organic, Yuko Mizutori stated that Japan was the largest silk exporter about 100 years ago. Hence, Japan has a history of experience, and a wealth of knowledge coupled with high technology of silk and sericulture to share with Kenyan farmers.

“We can’t use it [expertise] because Japan is too developed and also the climate in Kenya is much better than Japan for sericulture,” said Mizutori as she explained her company’s interest in Kenyan silk.

Includes reporting from The Associated Press