EDPRS: Walking the Talk : Sericulture : Opening sluice gates of opportunities for rural communities

Unlocking opportunities in the countryside has come to characterize the Rwanda government in the last 18 years. From setting up infrastructural webs to new innovations, the Rwandan rural economy has been on an upward trend.

Unlocking opportunities in the countryside has come to characterize the Rwanda government in the last 18 years. From setting up infrastructural webs to new innovations, the Rwandan rural economy has been on an upward trend. One of the recently introduced agricultural activities that is set to change rural life is the sericulture. The New Times’ Thomas Kagera talks to the Coordinator, National Sericulture Center Dr Pontiano Sebba Nemeye who gives an insight of this infant culture that promises to attract big investments and greatly impact on the rural communities.

The sericulture industry in Rwanda stems from early 2000 when scientists from ISAR visited a sericulture center in Nairobi and got inspired. This was followed by benchmarking visits by agricultural scientists and government officials in South Korea and Malaysia.

Experts were then invited to carry out feasibility studies and found Rwanda to be having ample environmental conditions for mulberry and silkworm growing.  Between 2003 and 2004, mulberry planting commenced and in 2006 the promotion of non traditional crops was intensified to diversify farmers’ incomes and the economy, and sericulture was identified as one of those activities that fit in the non-traditional production.

The International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD) in conjunction with government of Rwanda has been supporting sericulture activities through Smallholder Cash and Export Crops Development Project (PDCRE) for the last 5 years.

The silk industry however is still in its infancy stages being a completely new industry to cultural set ups of the country.  At the moment sericulture activities are coordinated by National Sericulture Centre (NSC), that was launched late 2010. The NSC manages 4 provincial centres and 40 pilot sericulture cooperatives located in various agro-ecological zones of the country. Each provincial centre has 3 technicians including one in charge of extension services, while membership in cooperatives range from 7 to well over 200 people.

In 2011, about 6.3 tons of fresh cocoons were produced up from an annual average of 1.5 tons of cocoons the previous 3 years before NSC took charge.

A total of 7 cocoon dryers have been installed at each of 5 sericulture centres (including NSC), and two other beneficiary cooperatives.

NSC has promoted capacity building by training in sericulture through Training of Trainers Courses (TOT), apprenticeships and onsite training of farmers by the extension and technical staff. In total, 105 farmers and 26 trainers have been trained while 8 apprenticeships have been realised.

Enrichment of silkworm germplasm has also been carried out. Two elite silkworm races were outsourced for F1 egg multiplication and distribution to sericulture farmers.
Other silk value initiatives realised were the procurement of forty two sets of reeling, re-reeling and spinning machines. Efficacy testing is ongoing to be followed by training in reeling technology to farmers. Three pairs of reeling machines from China procured and are being tested and the training in post-harvest cocoon processing/ handcraft making is being arranged.

NSC has also got involved in infrastructure support to beneficiary cooperatives, with over 30 cooperatives out of targeted 40 have rearing houses equipped with basic rearing materials. A total of 100 boxes of F1 Chinese eggs (Quarter III 2011) were imported and reared at various sericulture sites in the country with excellent performance (> 25 Kg / box at most sites).

Awareness programs in 2011 were executed with three interviews aired on Rwandan Television, news paper articles and participation in National Agricultural, provincial and District shows.

Collaborations have also been established with Rwanda Agricultural and Demonstration Technical Centre (RADTC) - Chinese project in Rwanda dealing with Sericulture among others, Korean Rural Community (Mwogo Valley Project: Rwanda) setting an integrated rural project involving sericulture activities).

Feasible for investors

Prospects of sericulture development are high given the conducive atmosphere for mulberry cultivation and silkworm rearing. Several visiting sericulture consultants have described Rwanda as a ‘paradise for silkworms’.

The bimodal annual rainfall distribution and temperatures ranging from 20 - 340 C with moderate cooling in the evenings make Rwandan climate suitable for both mulberry cultivation and silkworm rearing all year round. Besides, the ‘thousand hills’ of Rwanda moderate temperatures to about 20 - 30°C in most regions of the country make it ideal for silkworm rearing.

The abundant cheap labour in rural areas gives Rwanda a comparative advantage in sericulture. The major producers such as China and India are increasingly finding it more difficult to sustain current levels of silk production because of growing industrialization that attracts people from rural to urban areas in search of better wages.

Emphasis on post-harvest cocoon processing at cooperative and farmer level geared towards value addition and promotion of cottage industries is the way to go. Production of silk handcrafts and textiles including the popular traditional ladies attire (imishanana) would attract both local and export markets. The market of silk yarn by Gahaya Links Ltd for production of silk handcrafts and souvenirs is largely unutilized because of limited cocoons for silk reeling.

The high quality Rwandan silk is another bingo. Samples of Rwandan raw silk tested at Central Sericulture Research and Training Institute (CSRTI) of India was ranked 4A which is a grade attainable by experienced sericulture farmers and not beginners like in Rwanda.

Experts now believe that Rwandan silk may range from 4A - 5A based on observations on cocoons produced at present. Interestingly, foreign silkworm races reared in Rwanda perform much better than they do in countries of origin. This is with respect to cocoon weight, shell weight, shell ratio and other commercial parameters.

Rwandan farmers have demonstrated interest in sericulture given the large tracts of mulberry plantations distributed all over the country. These farmers deserve support to translate their mulberry into profitable sericulture industry.

The Rwanda government has continued to support sericulture subsector as it fits well into national development goals of poverty alleviation and increased household incomes. Such support includes capacity building through in-country training of farmers and training of trainers (ToT), staff training overseas, construction of rearing houses and acquisition of rearing materials and equipments for target institutions and cooperatives.

ISAR as a research institution of MINAGRI has mobilized funds to undertake research activities in sericulture. A sericulture Unit with a budget line was set up with a strong component of capacity building through on-job training by hired consultants or post graduate training abroad. Resource mobilization should continue to build fully equipped sericulture laboratories and training of competent sericulture research scientists.

Why embrace sericulture

Given the high employment potential, the unemployed youth and rural women and the elderly will find it a suitable enterprise for improved household incomes, stimulate rural economies and it’s a women friendly occupation.

Sericulture has low financial gestation period and high returns, with mulberry taking 6 months to grow (first planting) and 3 months after pruning. A farmer using recommended standard practices would fetch a net income of about Rwf1, 000,000.

It is also an eco-friendly activity. The mulberry foliage and root spread contribute to soil conservation and green cover while the silkworm litter during rearing provides manure inputs. Other advantages include minimal smoke emitting machinery since sericulture is labour intensive, can grow on upland hill slopes and terrace edges contributing to erosion control and water conservation. It can also be intercropped with legumes. Sericulture satisfies equity concerns since there is transfer of income from the rich purchasers of expensive silk materials to the rural poor.

Challenges and way forward

Limitations for a quick take-off of silk industry include poor silkworm seed, lack of improved techniques in silkworm rearing and mulberry cultivation, poor extension services and appropriate infrastructure (rearing houses / rearing materials) and cocoon transport to a single buyer (UTEXRWA) in Kigali. Many of these bottlenecks are being addressed by NSC and even though the cocoon production is still low, it is steadily improving as the farmers gain more experience.

For the 40 cooperatives that started limited production under PDCRE, the project would assist farmers in starting household-based production, and set up decentralised support services to provide inputs and advisory services to farmers and their cooperatives. Further, technical assistance would support the National Sericulture Centre and the Rwanda Silk Farmers Federation. After 3 years, the progress of silk development will be assessed to determine whether further support to this subsector would be warranted.

This approach entails two models, namely:  the basic model based on cooperative production and the advanced model based on household farm production. There will be a progressive shift from the first model to the second model where household cocoon production will be strongly encouraged. Individual farmers will have their own mulberry plantations (0.3 ha minimum) and small rearing houses accommodating 2-3 boxes per rearing cycle.

Each cooperative will have 40 individual farmers supported by the project by the 5th year. In the first year a total of 100 farmers from all cooperatives will be supported, then cumulatively increased to 300 in the 2nd year, 600 in the 3rd year, 1,100 in the 4th year and 1,600 in the 5th year.

If this model is fully implemented, one farmer will have annual income of more than USD 800 by the 3rd year, from cocoon production alone. This system empowers the farmer much better than the current collective production system at the cooperative level where dividends are small, if any. If the farmer intercrops some soybean, peanut or beans after mulberry pruning for two crops, (s)he can earn an additional USD120 per year.