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The slick silkworm farmer of Kisumu

Newton Owino, a sericulture farmer, has established a network of yarn markets in India, US and Egypt. He exports between 800kg and 1.5 tonnes of dry silkworm cocoons each month

Adusty murram road stretching off to the outskirts of Kisumu town centre leads us to a farm owned by one Newton Owino.

Soon we arrive at his farm located at Mamboleo area in Kisumu East sub-county and find him busy tending to daily farm’s chores.  Apparently, the farmer has mastered the technique of rearing silkworms, an enterprise whose potential is not exploited by many Kenyan.

After a rousing welcome, Owino begins to tell us the secrets behind his success in sericulture (the production of silk and the rearing of silkworms for this purpose). So how did you end up in this seemingly viable venture?

“I was a researcher at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe). Given my vast experience on insect rearing, I got interested in starting my own farm,” Owino says.

And so with a wide range of skills he had acquired as an insect researcher, the farmer crafted the idea to begin keeping Bombyx mori species of silkworms. (Bombyx mori —Latin for  “silkworm of the mulberry tree”)  He started the business in 2014 after his 17 years contract at Icipe as a senior insect researcher ended.

He was inspired by the desire to provide a product to supplement cotton production in his farm, which, apparently, was not such a viable venture. The aim was to extract silkworm cocoons for sale to silk manufacturers abroad.

As a first step in setting up a sericulture farm, he planted mulberry plants. Then he constructed a structure to accommodate the worms before he could source for eggs to begin hatching. He used only Sh5,000 as seed capital in this process.

Silkworms rearing process starts with incubation of the eggs in preparation for hatching. They take between 10 and 12 days to hatch. The worms go through four stages of development; egg, larva, pupa and adult. There are also five instars coming in between the stages.

The feeding programme varies depending on the instar. The larva (caterpillar) develops into pupa after the silkworm spins its cocoon before emerging as a moth.

The caterpillar eats for 26 days before spinning silk. It takes about another three days to fully spin a cocoon and turn into pupa. “The whole process ends when the caterpillars reach the fifth instar and finally spin into the cocoon. But we make sure the silk cocoon is dried up before the pupa develops into an adult moth (the growth into a moth will destroy the cocoon,” he explains.

Owino says good yield is not guaranteed unless certain procedures are met. For sustainability purposes, it is necessary to have a plantation of mulberry. Secondly,  caterpillars should be fed at least four times daily.

Owino, 39, started by incubating a 10,000 batch of eggs which gave him about 10kg of cocoons.  “For healthy development and uniform hatching, the eggs must be incubated under optimum temperatures of 25 to 28 degrees centigrade and humid conditions of 80 to 85 per cent,” explains the farmer.

After 30 days, the farmer’s fortunes began to change and he could afford a smile. The first produce earned him Sh33,000 and he ploughed back part of the proceeds to enlarge the agribusiness.

His first product was exported to India, thanks to an official at the Ministry of Industrialisation who connected Owino to the market. “The sure profits that came with the enterprise gave me the motivation to continue and I managed to get other farmers on board,” says a happy Owino.

To date, the sericulture farmer has established a network of silkworm yarn markets in India, US and Egypt.  Due to the growing demand for silk in the export markets, Owino has since sensitised and engaged other local farmers in the venture to boost supplies.

Currently, he deals directly with about 61 silkworm farmers in Kisumu county who produce on average between 50 and 150kg of cocoons. “The demand for cocoons is overwhelming, especially in the overseas markets. We urge other potential farmers to embrace the concept so that we meet the supply deficit,”  he says.

On average, the tactical farmer exports between 800kg and 1.5 tonnes of dry silkworm cocoons monthly. His farm is able to generate about 250 kg of the produce every month while the balance he sources from other farmers at Sh2, 000 per kilo.

Owino says current prices in overseas markets range around Sh4,200 per kilo. Initially, his farm relied on sourcing silkworm eggs from National Sericulture Research Centre (NSRC) in Thika and Icipe but he now produces his own.

Owino says quality production depends on a number of factors such as proper feeding programmes and hygiene standards. “The surplus of the eggs we give out to our associate farmers to sustain their production of the cocoons,” he says.

Generally, he says the worms are susceptible to polyhedrosis and grasserie diseases mainly contributed to by bacteria infections from poor hygiene. As a preventive measure, he recommends that farmers disinfect the beds by spraying lime on the surface and on the insects. “Farmers need to effectively disinfect the silkworm beds before and after hatching in order to keep pests and diseases at bay,” he advises.

Regardless of the huge potential in the venture, Owino regrets negative beliefs associated with rearing silkworms and lack of political goodwill from the county government in promoting the farming activity as top challenges. “Some people tend to believe that those keeping the worms are practising witchcraft.  There is need for more awareness creation to demystify such myths,” he says.

The farmer urges the county government and other agricultural institutions to put-in efforts in advocating for silkworm production as a substitute to the collapsed cotton sector. Compared to other farming ventures, silkworm keeping is less labour intensive, requires minimal resources to manage and takes short time to undertake.

As a long-term plan, Owino intends to set up a value-addition plant for processing silkworm yarn as he seeks to also maximise production. “We are doing a lot of capacity building to enable farmers have the full knowledge about silkworm rearing so that the production becomes sustainable,” he adds.

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