By Kahindi Vilivu

Inside a sizable workshop in Wote town, Makueni County, two women are engrossed in their sewing machines, methodically working to produce silk yarns.  In another corner, two young men are working on a loom where the silk yarn is spread and meticulously sewn together through a raft of machines to make fabrics.

For eight years now, this humble workshop dubbed Tosheka Textiles in lower Eastern parts of Kenya has been churning out silk fabrics which are highly regarded in the textile industry for top quality.

The workshop’s manager Teresa Njue says silk yarns can be used to produce different textures while maintaining originality. From here, the fabrics are sold locally while others are shipped abroad.

The two women, Pricilla Maingi, 70, and her namesake Pricilla Muli, 48, are part of about 50 local women who have been co-opted into a cocktail of programme that involves rearing of silkworms for fibre production as well as working on the fibre product to produce fabric raw materials.

Priscilla Muli shows how silk yarns are produced from silk fibres.
Priscilla Maingi, 70, working on a sewing machine to produce silk yarns at Tosheka Textiles workshop in Wote town, Makueni county.

The unique silkworm farming venture which is an ideal income earner for rural communities, especially in dry regions was introduced in Makueni in 2012 by Herman Muli Bigham and his wife Lucy who saw an opportunity to empower the rural communities in that part of the country where rain fed agriculture is not reliable while at the same time producing high quality and superior fibre which is in high demand in the textile industry across the world.

Muli describes the venture as the leading Eri Silk producer in East Africa.

“Tosheka Textiles has introduced Eri silkworm farming to establish a year-round alternative sustainable farming for dry areas that is not rain dependent,” he says.

The farmers who have been trained on how to rear and handle the worms until they are able to produce the fibre describe the initiative as most convenient since it helps feed their families and is less labour intensive unlike menial jobs they performed in the past.

“We have been trained on how to feed the worms and how to harvest the fibre. The worms are only fed three times per day and this is convenient for us as we can engage in other activities,” says Maingi who has been rearing silkworms for four years now.

The women say from the initiative, an individual farmer is able to rake in at least Sh25,000 (about USD 250) from the sale of the fibre. And the market for their fibre is always assured since the textile workshop buys it all. At kwa Mboo village outside Wote town, a number of women have been provided with several sewing machines to thread silk yarns which is later delivered at the workshop.

“This is our lifeline now. We know how to rear the silkworms, produce the silk yarn and we have certificates to show our competencies on what we can do,” says a proud Maingi who belongs to kwa Mboo cluster of silkworm farmers.

Herman Muli Bigham standing next to chambers where silkworms are reared before they produce the much sought silk fibre

The worms exclusively feed on castor plant leaves and the castor seeds are provided freely to the farmers. Apart from silkworm products, the women have also been trained on how to make baskets using recycled plastic bags which is additional economic mainstay for them.

So how are silkworms reared and how is their much valued fibre harvested? We visited a silkworm rearing cum silk fibre production workshop in the outskirts of Wote town where Muli has set up a full fledged production unit to meet this demand and where farmers come to learn on how to rear the worms and harvest the fibre.

Here, Joyce Musau, the manager of the facility shows us compartments where the worms are reared until they hit the pupa stage to be able to produce the fibre.

To get the silkworms, Musau says that healthy female and male worms at pupa stage are kept in darkroom where they mature and become giant moths. At the darkroom, the moths mate after which the female ones lay eggs which hatch into small worms in about 10 days. She says that a female moth lays between 300 – 350 eggs.

Joyce Musau and Herman Muli Bigham feed silkworms at their production house in Wote, Makueni county.

At their specially designed compartments, the small worms are constantly fed on castor plant leaves until when they are at their pupa stage, which is the crucial period to produce the highly sought fibre.

“When ready, about 5 silkworms are placed in a single newspaper wrapping and placed in the counters for three days,” Musau explains. Each of the compartments is filled with the wrapped worms and for the three days, each silkworm, from its cocoon rotates its body thousands of times while extruding one continuous strand of silk fibre, the length of 12 football fields.

At this stage however, the fibre is coated with a gummy protein and must be given another four days to dry up, giving a fine white fibre at the end.

While the fibre is still intact, the worm stays inside its cocoon, alive and likely to morph into a moth. However, since the pupa numbers are high, Muli says it is not practical to allow all of them grow to their next adulthood stage.

This is why next to the silkworm production house he has erected a solar drier where all the extra worms are dried and ground into flour to make animal feed that is rich in protein.

“Our Eri Silk production provides large amounts of pupa, which is a unique, nutritional clean source of non-meat high protein which is good as animal feed,” says Muli while showing some of the dried worms.

Teresa Njue, the manager at Tosheka Textiles workshop in Wote, Makueni county shows some of the ready silk yarns. The silk yarns are then used to produce fabrics of different textures.
Clement Mutua and a colleague working on different looms where the silk yarn is spread and straightened then squashed through several machines to make fabrics.

The entrepreneur notes that silkworm fibre is the most convenient and eco friendly fibre for the multi million shillings textile industry in Kenya and elsewhere. He says silkworm farming is less labour intensive and environment friendly unlike cotton farming which is heavily depended on rains, fertilizers and chemicals.

He notes: “Eri silk yarn is a fabric in high global demand. It is a textile fiber that is superior to cotton and does not have any of the negative issues of cotton production such as use of chemicals and fertilizers. It is a perfect candidate to replace cotton as a durable textile fibre that can be mass produced throughout the country, all year-round.”

He adds that silk fibre can be actualized in a small piece of land and is environment friendly.

The Castor plant, which is the main food for silkworms is good for absorbing carbon while their seeds are used as biofuel products and for making pharmaceuticals.

Muli reveals that Tosheka Textiles has launched a national project for growing and collection of castor seeds for biofuel and silk rearing where 1000 farmers have been engaged to grow the plant.

“We have a standing order and contract for supplying 20 tons of caster seeds for biofuel production with on-demand payment. Our mission is to substantially provide massive employment through working with rural farmers to rear Eri silkworm that produce sustainable textiles,” he says.

A kilo of castor seeds will be bought at Sh35 (about USD 0.35). Muli says the future of the textile industry is bright with silk fibre.