After maize farming proved futile, some farmers from Kakamega County are thinking outside the box. Emily Bunoro, from Shiseno village in Ikolomani constituency has abandoned maize farming for the more rewarding silk worms rearing.
“I can say I make double what I used to make from maize farming and I use less energy and resources,” she says.
With the proceeds she takes care of herself and family and has also leased a bigger plot of land to expand the project. Though she is now comfortable, she says the journey has been hilly.
“Starting was not easy. This project surprised even my neighbours who thought I had gone crazy. Even now, it’s still tricky. Some people call me ‘mama caterpillars’ and one friend has vowed not to set foot in my house until I take away my caterpillars,” Bunoro tells Smart Harvest at her farm.
In her house, she has 10,000 silk worms spread on three elevated trays that dot her living room.
“Back in 2012 when Kenya Agricultural Production Agri-business Programme introduced the project, many people in Kakamega embraced it but after a short while gave up for varied reasons. I decided to stay put,” Bunoro says.
The organisation gave interested farmers some worms and explained to them how to run the project.
Bunoro took several worms and planted the mulberry trees on her small farm, which are the main diet for the worms.
“I was given the rearing tray. I placed it inside the living room and placed the worms. The creatures are supposed to be warm that’s why rearing them in the house is ideal,” she explains.
Within a month, the creatures started producing cocoons and she harvested ten kilos which she sold to International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe) making a tidy sum able to sustain her and her family. And that is how she now makes her living.
“I cannot say I make millions, but I make more money than I would have made from maize,” she says.
Bunoro now encourages other farmers in the area to take up this project because it takes less energy and money and it has a ready market.
How to feed them
Bunoro feeds the creatures on mulberry tree leaves. Bunoro says the worms need a constant supply of leaves to increase the silk production.
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The eggs develop to the larvae stage and it takes between 25 to 32 days to make cocoons. The silk is harvested by boiling the cacoons in hot water.
Silk worms thrive well in temperatures of between 23 to 28 degrees. They die when exposed to direct sunlight.
It is also advisable not to wear strong perfume near them or smoke because they thrive on fresh air.
Bunoro says their rearing trays should be disinfected before spreading papers underneath where the worms will be reared.
“They eat a lot of mulberry leaves, they also drop on the trays. So it is key to clean the trays for hygiene. These droppings can be used as organic manure,” she says.
A sericulture farmer either buys worms or eggs from International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe) or from National Sericulture Station in Thika.
“You need about 100 stems of the mulberry stems to start off with at least 10,000 worms. At their initial stage you start feeding them with tender leaves specifically those that grow at the apex,” says Bunoro.
“A steady supply of feeds will ensure that the worms grow steadily. Underfeeding them on mulberry will cause them to overfeed the following day and they will fall sick,” she says.
The worms are prone to attacks from viral, bacterial, fungal and protozoan diseases.
The worm’s growth is pegged on diet but it is instructive to note that these worms will not feed when they enter the period of shedding their outer skin that takes place every five to six days.
She says during this period, the worm’s head grows bigger and their bodies swell making their skin expand and in the process lose colour.
During this change the creatures take on a ‘weird and scary’ look.
“You can even see through its body; a biological process that perhaps triggers superstitious interpretations among those who dread rearing the worms,” she explains.
“You may think they are dead but they are simply maturing. If you are a farmer do not disrupt this process. Don’t panic, let the worms be. They will only take a day to lose their skin and will not feed during this period,” says Bunoro who encourages people to take up the profitable venture.
“I have a quarter an acre of my farm under mulberry bushes, I challenge anyone to plant maize there and see whether it will fetch you anything close to what my worm fetches me,” she poses.
How to tell when your worm is about to spin( to produce the silk).
“The worm will start to swing from side to side hitting its head to find a suitable place to start making its cocoon. You will realise it is docile and only its head moves. You can pick it up and place it on a spinning montage or dry banana leaves,” explains the farmer.
If you don’t move the worm from the others it may start walking over them and in the process may tear its skin which is usually delicate during that period. The farmer sells a kilo of cocoons at Sh900 to Icipe, which is always ready to buy.
Rearing the caterpillars is associated with witchcraft in Africa so many shy away from it and those who have embraced it are treated with scorn.
Another big challenge is attacks from diseases. David Mwangi of National Sericulture centre says many farmers are unable to deal with diseases affecting the worms.
“Diseases that affect the worm are complex to treat and this is frustrating,” Mr Mwangi says.
One of the common diseases is flacherie, which attacks the worms when they eat infected or contaminated mulberry leaves.
To prevent it, Mr Mwangi advises farmers to observe hygiene and disinfect the rearing tray. Another disease is pebrine caused by a parasite. To prevent these diseases, a farmer is advised to observe hygiene and disinfect the rearing tray.