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Silk Production Secrets: Why This African Business Opportunity Is Profitable and Unique

When looking for a profitable African business opportunity it is sometimes worthwhile to think (and look!) outside the box. After I read about a public call that was made in Kenya last month by Dr Monicah Waiganjo, a crop scientist and Kiambu County Executive Member for Agriculture, I decided to give that favourite niche of mine a little bit more exposure.

Well, fair enough, dealing with silkworms will not be to everyone’s liking. But those of you who are into building profitable agricultural ventures in Africa or working closely with farming communities have an opportunity at hand that is simply unique. What I love about the concept of starting an Africa silk production venture is that it is not mainstream; competition is low, yet it ticks so many boxes that you as a heart-centered African entrepreneur or investor would surely embrace. I will present the best benefits at the end of my post. So bear with me….

Let’s have a quick look at the history of silk making – sericulture – in Africa and where it is found today:
The history of sericulture in Africa

The earliest accounts of silk making are documented in Madagascar and South Africa. The reason why Madagascar may be one of the earliest locations is because it is the only place where the mulberry trees on which the worms feed are growing naturally; they are native. These worms were then introduced to the Cape Colony of South Africa, by the Dutch East India Company as early as 1726, and unfortunately much of the silk production took place by using black slaves. There is also some mention of the mulberry tree in older Egypt literature, but I was unable to find a suggestion regarding its early introduction.

Today, places in Africa where some silk production is actively taking place or where you see attempts to revive the old industry include Madagascar, South Africa, Botswana, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya. It was Kenya that just made another public call for increased production. Let’s have a look at the article to get an authentic idea of the market situation and this unique African business opportunity.

[Note! One important piece you need for improved understanding is that high quality silk worms feed on mulberry trees, which you need to plant since they are not native to Africa. But, and this is less discussed, there are also silk producing worms that feed on plants native to Africa (see my video with an Ethiopian case study at the end of this post!). The quality is less exquisite and you will make fewer profits. But it is something to get you started immediately while you wait for your mulberry tree seedlings to grow – they need about 3 years]
The market case Kenya

Dr Monicah Waiga, Kiambu County Executive Member for Agriculture, said in a recent meeting that sericulture has potential to trigger development in rural areas, thus, farmers should be encouraged to embrace it.

Kenya’s annual silk production is hardly above 2 metric tonnes of dried cocoons, yet the national potential is over 10,000 metric tonnes.

“Silk is four to 10 times more valuable than coffee, tea and vegetables when grown for export,” said Dr Lusike Wasilwa, a plant scientist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro).

Dr Felister Makini, the Kalro deputy director-general, noted that earlier attempts to develop silk farming were not anchored on science and technology. “Participating smallholder farmers could, therefore, not sustainably achieve the consistency in both quantity and quality fit for the international silk market.”

Silk farming was first introduced in Kenya in 1904, but remained a business for only a few farmers until 1972 when the Kenyan government and Japan International Cooperation Agency entered into a joint project to popularise it.

“Currently, ongoing sericulture activities like mulberry tree establishment, rearing silkworms, processing and marketing cocoons are at very low levels. Returns have remained low and have not attracted significant investments,” said Dr Makini.

The government has, thus, pledged to pump in Sh700m in the National Sericulture Research Centre, which is under Kalro.

The centre located in Thika will be required to produce its own silk worm eggs in the long-term and also extend silk rearing skills and knowhow to farmers.

So far, there are 600 sericulture farmers in the country, with less than 50 rearing silkworms, the rest are mulberry bush growers.

Potential areas for silkworm farming include Western, Nyanza, Central, Eastern, Coast and parts of Rift Valley.

The government is also establishing silk cocoons buying centres in Makueni, Kitui, Bungoma,Taita Taveta, Homabay, Meru, Embu, Thika and Naivasha.

A kilo of dried cocoon goes for between Sh750 and Sh900.

“Mulberry leaves can be processed into mulberry tea, which is very healthy for cancer patients, its berries can also be used to make mulberry jam or juice,” Dr Wasilwa notes. (source: allafria.com)

Let’s look at the list of unique benefits

1. Silk production will enable you to establish rural farmer cooperatives and improve the profits of African farmers

A lot of us want to do business in Africa to make an impact. In fact there is a very large and steadily increasing number of successful social entrepreneurs out there. Producing silk for a larger commercial venture enables you to establish a close relationship with rural communities who you could engage to grow the mulberry trees on or alongside crops. Even the worm rearing could take place there if well monitored for quality. Some smallholder farmers in Rwanda and Kenya have already abandoned their traditional crops, because they earn so much more from silk worm rearing. It is also a wonderful opportunity for impoverished African women farmers and a great way to empower them long-term. Keep in mind that a kilo of raw silk can fetch up to 10 times the price as that of cotton.

2. Silk Production will tap into Africa’s growing apparel and fashion industries

Africa’s apparel industry will grow substantially, there is no doubt about it. We can observe a very clear policy and development effort in this regard in Ethiopia, followed by Kenya and Nigeria who are planning to revive their apparel industries. The apparel industry is also well-developed in countries like Egypt and South Africa and clothing giants such as H&M are producing now also in Africa . But there is more: Africa’s fashion industry is growing, too, and it is gaining international recognition. In short: you will most definitely tap into a powerful market when you produce made-in Africa silk, and that while competition is low or in some markets non-existent, which can quickly turn you into a market leader.

3. Silk production will enable you to tap into global exports

According to the FAO, global silk demand is growing by 5% annually. The five largest fresh cocoon producing countries are (in brackets average production of last 4 years in tonnes of per year is reported): China (500,000), India (126,000), Uzbekistan (20,200), Brazil (14,000) and Vietnam (13,000).

From an African perspective, China is the biggest export market for silk cocoons, while India, Italy, Japan, France, and Germany are among the top importers for silk and silk garments. The US is the biggest importer of silk products for housing interiors.

I think when you consider it a serious investment, your goal should not be to solely produce the cocoons, but the full value added cycle when you process those into silk threads and cloth. That is how you will reap more profits both in Africa and when targeting the export market. Having said that you could develop that in stages, as even the unprocessed cocoons are profitable.

4. Silk Production based on benefits of Mulberry trees with potential for various profitable by-products

First of all, it will be important for you to know that most mulberry tree varieties are fast growing. If you plant them as seedlings, they need about 3 years to be strong enough to allow the harvesting of leaves for silk worm rearing. The trees can grow in highly acidic to highly alkaline soils and will grow in loamy, sandy or clay soils, and it needs a fair amount of water. You will also contribute towards local or regional afforestation efforts found across on the continent.

But there is more good news: Mulberry trees are multi-purpose trees by any standard. Most varieties also grow juicy fruits (similar to blackcurrant), which means farmers or local food processing companies can use them for juice or marmalade production. And leaves can be used for tea production.

The naturally produced Sericin in the cocoons can further be sold to the skin care industry, as it is a luxury addition for creams, which is said to minimize the risk of skin cancer. And even after silk production, the remaining pupal cake is a rich source of protein suitable for feed supplements in poultry and fisheries.

If you are based in Ethiopia, there is a very useful silk production profile and cost forecast for you: click here.

And here are some wonderful videos of a small-scale manual silk-production cooperative in Ethiopia and a small factory in Kenya. I hope you find some minutes to watch them – they are very inspiring!

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