Silkworm rearing turns into goldmine for Rwandan farmers

By Jean d’Amour Mugabo
On 6 November 2017 at 08:39

Umuseke Cooperative, rearing silkworms in Rwimishinya Cell, Rukara Sector of Kayonza District, started in 2011 but had always benefited little from cocoon production until January 2017 when they got a reliable market and October’s higher prices up to Rwf2,900 from Rwf2,100 per kilogram of the highest quality cocoon.

The average price is now at Rwf2,500 per kilogram. Government will start construction of a silk processing firm in Kigali Special Economic Zone this November. Government and Korean firm, HEworks Rwanda Silk, are giving incentives to sericulture farmers, giving the sectorguarantee for a reliable market that relieves farmers from the previous losses which saw mulberry trees, food for silkworm, grow into bushes around the country as the owners abandoned silkworm rearing.

Jean Pierre Bicamumpaka, coordinator of the 17-member Umuseke Cooperative, says they were discouraged from selling cocoons to UTEXRWA, Rwanda’s textile firm, which used to delay payments for six months. The new investor, HEworks Rwanda Silk, is paying them within a maximum of seven days from the day of supply.

“We have recently bought a land at Rwf1,150,000 with the support of Rwf850,000 from our district for planting more mulberry trees to enable us increase cocoon production to at least 250 kilograms per monthly cycle. We can produce cocoons six to eight cycles per year,” he told IGIHE from exhibition in Kayonza, last month.

“This business is turning into a goldmine; we are seeing a lot of benefits, easy to do and do it while doing other activities at the same time. In the next five years, we target to have huge production and machines to dry up the cocoons and sell at higher prices.”

Bicamumpaka said the investor is soon awarding farmers with contracts which can help them access the financing from financial institutions.

Potentials in sericulture

Sericulture is an agro-based sector involving rearing silkworms to produce cocoons and raw silk by reeling cocoons. Amid the developed countries’ rapid industrialisation, sericulture presents good opportunities for developing countries to produce raw material for the manufacturers in developed countries, according to Jean Marie Vianney Munyaneza, the manager for Diversification and Products Development at National Agricultural Exports Development Board (NAEB).

“Now a kilogram of silk yarn is at $70 up from $30 five years ago when China had good production of silk. So, we have a good market but as we focus on promoting Made in Rwanda products, this silk will also be important to support our local textile in the coming years,” he said.

To maximise the benefits, Munyaneza says the Government decided to build a silk firm worth Rwf1.5 billion and all is set to start construction by November to see it operational by next year with the high technology machinery by mainly the government and some by HEworks Rwanda Silk.

The firm will have the capacity of producing 100 tonnes of raw silk (silk yarn) annually. While only 10 tonnes of dry cocoons were recorded in 2016, production is expected to increase to around 35 tonnes by 2017 due to many efforts by the Government, farmers and HEworks Rwanda Silk, according to Munyaneza.

“We are targeting to produce 300 tonnes of dry cocoons annually from 2020. These tonnes will need good farmers and firms. We have an agreement with HEworks Rwanda Silk that will build another firm in Rwamagana District as the production increases. When we hit 300 tonnes target, we shall upgrade the Government’s firm to manufacture silk clothes starting from ties and scarves and leave cocoon reeling activities to Korean firm,” he says.

Munyaneza urged farmers to take advantage of the government’s current incentives in sericulture including free mulberry cuttings for planting, roofing materials for silkworm rearing houses, silkworm eggs, training of farmers and investor’s offer of Rwf15 per every mulberry tree that a farmer grows.

Rwanda’s silk among top quality

Dr Keewook Sohn, Managing Director for HEworks Rwanda Silk Ltd, says that Rwanda has favourable natural conditions such as temperature and rainfall that allow six to eight cycles of cocoon production per year while most countries never go beyond three cycles.

“We sent Rwanda’s silk to China to test the quality last year and was found to be of very high quality. Cocoon’s quality is ranked in the way 6A is the highest but is rare to find, then 5A, 4A, 3A, 2A, 1A to B, C, D... From 3A and above, the quality is high. Rwanda’s silk was ranked at 4A which is high quality,” he says.

Dr Sohn says to produce the highest quality does not only base on good silkworm rearing but also on technology of cocoon drying and reeling machines, adding that his company is going to bring the top quality machines and top quality technicians to produce the highest quality of raw silk from next year.

He says they target to reach 1,000 hectares of mulberry plantation by 2018 from the current 260 hectares around the country. The total income from one hectare’s minimum 750kg cocoon production stands at Rwf1,650,000 but is expected to keep increasing regularly to reach Rwf3 million by October 2022.

There are at least 3,200 farmers in 40 cooperatives practicing sericulture around the country and the number is quickly increasing due to the sector’s increasing benefits as cocoon prices have almost doubled from Rwf1,350 to Rwf2,500 per kilogram in the last three years.

A worker at HEworks Rwanda Silk displays dry cocoons in stores awaiting for reeling to produce raw silk
Mulberry plantation in Rwamagana District. Silkworm eat mulberry leaves to enable them produce cocoons that are processed into silk
Bicamumpaka explains cocoon making process from exhibition in Kayonza. Yellow cocoons were brought for exhibition but only white cocoons are being produced in Rwanda
Bicamumpaka explains cocoon production cycle. IGIHE interviewed him from exhibition in Kayonza District on September 29, 2017
Cocoons in the boxes and silkworms next making cocoons during the exhibition in Kayonza on September 29, 2017
Keewook Sohn, Managing Director of HEworks Rwanda Silk Ltd based in Rwamagana District