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Could silk production become farming’s new money-spinner?

Silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves

Silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves

The farming activity of raising silkworms in order to obtain raw silk has been practiced in Uganda since the sixties but it was abandoned in the nineties due to lack of market and the complexity.

However, the global rise in demand for silk and the subsequent increase of the price prompted government, through the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) to embark on new ways of tap- ping into the industry. Last week, a 1,000-acre silk production project in Kisozi, Gomba was commissioned in the first major step of promoting silkworm farming to tap into the multi-billion silk industry as well as create jobs for lo- cal farmers, writes NICHOLAS BAMULANZEKI.

You cannot miss the primary school topic about how clothes are made from cotton fibers and how the ram material has for years been one of Uganda’s biggest foreign exchange earners.

But, have you ever paused to think of the raw material for most ties, gomesis, curtains or even beddings?

Well, it is silk but much as the process involves growing a crop called mulberry, the real source of the silk is an organism called silkworm, an activity known as sericulture. Ugandan businesspeople spend millions of dollars to import these silk fabrics before carving out various items locally.

However that may change if the new effort to promote silk production bears fruit and, going by government’s renewed effort to promote the activity countrywide. Last week, Vincent Ssempijja, the Agriculture minister, officially launched a silk production project in Kisozi, Gomba, which sits on more than 1,000 acres with several other pieces of land for outgrowers.

At the Shs 18.5bn facility is a large swath of land on which three million mulberry crops grown plus several large houses used for rearing silk-worms, which are fed on leaves of the mulberry crop until they mature to produce cocoons of silk.

The project is a brainchild of the Iran Agro-Industrial Group and is in conjunction with NARO to provide farmers with mulberry crops and train them in silkworm raising.

The worms can only feed on the mulberry, which is native to south-eastern Asia. The project also involved the planting of other crops such as cassava, maize or beans to supplement the usage of the land.

Workers at the place took the media around the rearing houses, which are well-ventilated to provide a cool atmosphere. In here, there are millions of silkworms larvae are kept in cabinets where they are fed on the leaves.

“We feed them three times a day as they mature after which they start making silk cocoons to shed their skin,” said Clet Masiga, the lead sericulture researcher at NARO. “It takes about eight days for the cocoon to be ready for silk production.”

Seyed Mohammad Ali Mousavi, the Iran Agro-Industrial Group chairman, noted that Uganda stands to greatly benefit from silk production and it economic activity has the capacity to overtake traditional cash crops such as coffee and cotton.

“This project is going to open the doors for farmers to earn big through silk production because it will offer mulberry crop, training as well as ready market for cocoons. We expect to export at least 10,000 tonnes annually for the start,” he said.

“A good harvest can earn a farmer 10 times when is earned through cotton or coffee production and the global demand is so huge.” Ssempijja praised the venture and promised full government support.

”This initiative will open the eyes of Ugandan farmers to diversify and I want sericulture to be part of our ministry’s planning mechanism,” he said.

“We were worried at some stage whether the project would take off but now that I’ve seen how it is moving, I’m grateful to Seyed and his team. Government wants to see sericulture spread to the out-growers to widen their income base.”

Vincent Ssempijja (L) tours the silkworm farm with Seyed Mohammad Ali Mousavi (2nd L)

This is the second time government is trying out silk production after earlier efforts fell through due to little sensitising of farmers. However, Masiga says Ugandan soils are tailor-made for mulberry crops and plans are underway to see the crop grown countrywide.

“Today, silk production is done on just 15,000 acres compared to 500,000 for coffee and 200,000 for cotton; yet the value of silk production is far higher compared to the two main cash crops,” he said.

“Uganda has the capacity to produces 20,000 tonnes of silk annually and given that a kilo of silk cocoons costs about $50 on the world market, the country can generate at least $93m. Compare that with the $400m the country makes on 500,000 acres of land and you will realise that silk production is more lucrative” Seyed also noted that plans are underway to bring into the country machinery that will refine the cocoons into ready fabric.

“At the moment, the importing the machines is expensive when the production is still low but when we expand silk production, the country will be able to cut costs by producing ready-made fabrics or garments for various purposes,” he said.

That, in essence, would not only save Ugandans from spending billions in importation of silk fabrics and products but also create employment for farmers on top of earning the country much-needed foreign exchange through exports.

However, in order for the country to make any significant inroads into the coveted silk industry, Masiga noted that it will have to take a concerted effort involving expansion of land on which mulberry is grown, training of farmers plus use of modern technology.

nicholasbamulanzeki@gmail.com

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