Ethiopian pioneer silk farmer smiling all the way to the bank

For people from certain cultures, touching worms with bare hands is disgusting. Not so for Geleta Hailu, an Ethiopian entrepreneur. Together with his employees, they have been producing silk from silk worms for a living for the past 10 years.

Geleta and his employees are engaged in production of silk near Arba Minch Airport in southern Ethiopia, some 450km from Addis Ababa.

The company has also contracted dozens smallholder farmers as out-growers. “About 10 years ago, I heard an agricultural researcher talking on national TV about silk production from these worms. That is when I was inspired and started doing my own research on the internet. Finally, I decided to try production. I began on a 200 square meters plot and with an investment of about 600,000 birr (around $50,000 at that time’s exchange rate),” says Geleta, who founded Bere Sericulture Production Company.

“Seven years ago, the government gave me three hectares of land to expand my production. Today, with a total of 43 employees, we produce two types of silk and sell it to textile factories, which used to import the products. We produce up to 1,200kg of silk per hectare,” he says.

“I was frightened to touch the worms with my bare hands when I started two years ago,” says Eyerusalem Petros, one of the employees, who earns 800 birr per month (around $38).

“Today, I don’t fear them. I am happy to be able to pay for my school and continue my studies in the evening,” she says.

Employee salaries at Bere range from 500 birr (around $24) for a cook, to 3,000 birr (around $143) per month.

“Our products at the moment substitute for the imports from China and India. We sell our products to textile factories that produce different products for export market,” Geleta says.

Bere sells one kilogramme of first grade silk for 2,400 birr (around $110) while the price for a kilogramme of second grade silk is 1,400 birr (around $67), which is around $15 cheaper than the imported variety.

The process

Producing silk from worms takes a maximum of 45 days. Breeding the worm goes through the basic cycle of egg – larva – pupa–adult (butterfly).

The worms begin producing silk at the pupa stage. The pupa will gradually be covered fully by the silk within six to seven days. After that, some of the bigger sized pupas will be selected and preserved to be converted to butterflies so as to sustain the cycle.

Based on the temperature, at between nine to 11 days, these pupas will be converted to butterflies, according to Wondwosen Dejene, senior sericulture expert at the newly-established Ethiopian Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries.

Most of the pupas will be exposed to the sun or drying machine in order to die after they are fully covered by the silk. The silk will then manually be extracted from them and converted to thread, which is the final product from Bere.

In some countries like China and Thailand, the pupas are used as food after they produce the silk.

But in the case of Ethiopia, because of the difference in culture and eating habits, the pupa will be let to die after producing the silk, while some are converted to butterflies to produce eggs in order to sustain the cycle. The pupa can also be used as feed for fish and chicken, and for producing mushrooms, according to Geleta.

Wetland or irrigation is mandatory to grow the leaves, which will be used as food for the worms. The major leaves used to feed silk worms in Ethiopia are mulberry, castor, cassava and papaya.

In silk production, almost 80 per cent of the total land investment is used to grow these leaves, which the butterflies feed on to produce eggs.

Hygiene is of paramount importance in breeding the worms and finally to get the silk from them, according to Geleta. His farm also needs continuous pesticide control.

“As my silk farm is the first in Ethiopia, we are now considered a centre of excellence for sericulture. Many people from research centres frequently visit us and give us their professional advice,” he says.

Geleta has invested 12 million birr (around $570,000) so far in Bere and recently installed a production machinery imported from India.

India and China are among the top silk producing countries, using the first and second generation silk worms.

“If our government is able to negotiate with these governments and help us get these first and second generation silk worms, I think that will dramatically boost Ethiopia’s silk production,” Geleta suggests.

After buying the silk thread from Geleta, the textile factories make either a 100 per cent textile from it, or produce a fabric mixing the silk with cotton for the export market.

The expansion

In addition to breeding the worms on the three hectares of the company’s farm, dozens of farmers are also engaged as out-growers. The farm provides seeds and trains the farmers so that they produce the silk and sell back to Geleta’s farm.

“In addition to what we produce at our own farm, we get up to 60 kilograms of silk from these out-growers,” Geleta says.

“We are assisting investors like Mr Geleta, in providing land and facilitating duty free import of machineries and bank loans,” says, Addis Setegn, investment promotion officer at Gamo-Gofa zone in the Southern Regional State.

“After completing the expansion, our plan is to install modern weaving machines and start producing finished textile as well as begin exporting directly to potential markets such as Japan and Canada,” says Geleta, who just returned from China acquiring advanced training on mass production of silk.

“We want to make silk production one of the top export items of Ethiopia – like that of coffee – involving as many people as possible,” he adds.

The company was now seeking a bank loan to expand its investment.

A total of three tons of silk is being produced annually in four parts of Ethiopia – Amhara, Tigray, Southern and Oromia regions.

“By improving the quality of silk, we are planning to boost the production by at least 50 per cent every year and reach 23 tonnes per annum on the fifth year,” says Wondwosen.

Sericulture was not getting much attention within the former ministry of agriculture, according to Wondwosen who was the only expert in the field at the previous ministry.

“But now under the new ministry of animals and fishery, our department will have at least six experts working on the improvement of silk production in terms of both quality and quantity,” he says.

In the coming five years, new model silk production centres where farmers can get training, will be established. The Alage Agricultural Technical Vocational Education Training College will work on market and product quality improvement-related issues, among others, according to Wondwosen.

For now, Geleta is one of the two private investors engaged in sericulture production in Ethiopia. There are also some farmers who sell their products directly to Addis Ababa-based processors though there were no clear statistics on their number and level of production.

“In our effort to boost our production, install mechanised weaving machines and export our products directly, we are now in the process of acquiring 200 hectares of land from the government,” Geleta says.