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International market for local butterfly farmers beckons

By Philip Mwakio | November 16th 2018
A butterfly farm in Kilifi, Coast. [Standard]

Butterfly farmers in Arabuko Sokoke Forest may soon strike it rich after international butterfly exhibitors expressed interest in buying their insects.

The exhibitors, together with scientists, were recently in Malindi, for a week-long scientific conference, to learn more about the African butterfly bred at Arabuko Sokoke. 

More than 7,000 farmers living next to the forest are engaged in butterfly farming under the Kipepeo Project.

Since the Kipepeo Project started in 1993, farmers have been collecting butterflies from the forest, breed them and export the pupae to markets in the US and the United Kingdom.

Annual conferences

Global exhibitors have annual conferences and tour countries where there are large production of butterflies -to see how the products are made and the different species available.

This year, thanks to their efforts, Arabuko Sokoke farmers got received visitors from nine world-renowned butterfly exhibitors, under the International Association of Butterfly Exhibitors and Suppliers.

They were hosted by the Kipepeo Project management. They majorly discussed issues impacting butterfly farming, available species and how best to improve the market.

The exhibitors said they had interest in the African butterflies because they are unique and attract many clients in their countries.

Michael Buckman, the group president, led the delegation of 43 exhibitors, suppliers and scientists.

The team took a field trip to the Kipepeo project at Gedi Ruin, and also visited butterfly farmers in Arabuko Sokoke.

Mr Buckman said they were interested in  how the community contributes to social improvement of the forest, by breeding butterflies without destroying vegetation.

"We came to see where the butterflies come from, the conference is discussing mainly butterfly breeding," he said.

Buckman said there were many opportunities for farmers since butterflies were mainly sourced from from Africa -Kenya in particular.

He said the recent launch of direct flights between Kenya and the US would speed up transportation of the insects.

"For a very long time, transportation has been a major problem for suppliers, especially in the US due to a number of issues ranging from easy access to strict rules at customs and immigration," he said.

He said the demand for butterflies was growing and expressed optimism that it would contribute not only to economic development of the farmers but also reduce the pressure of destruction of forests.

There are more than 21,000 species of butterflies worldwide, with Africa having 3,800.

Experts say Kenya has 871 species with 263 found in the Arabuko Sokoke forest.

Butterflies are reportedly classified into families and genera. In the Arabuko Sokoke, there are five families and 58 genus.

Each type has different rates when exported abroad.

Among the participants in the conference was the founder of Kipepeo Ian Gordon, a zoologist from Britain who has worked and lived in Kenya since 1987.

Gordon has lectured in universities in Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya. He quit his job to start the butterfly breeding project in Arabuko Sokoke.

The zoologist said he has been conducting research of African butterflies, and his idea of breeding came up after the industry rose up in the 1970s.

He said his choice for Arabuko Sokoke was as a result of the threats facing the unique coastal forest. The forest was under the threat of destruction through human activity -charcoal burning and poaching.

His research found out that 96 per cent of people living next to Arabuko Sokoke were not happy due to the continuous destruction of crops by elephants.

"I was aware of the problem and found butterfly farming as a way of promoting conservation," he said.

Butterfly farming

He said butterfly farming was important to enable those living near the forest generate income and make use of the resources without destroying it.

Gordon started the project with Sh5 million capital through a grant by the global Environment Family. This has grown to more than Sh200 million.

“It wasn’t easy at the beginning, people thought I was a crazy mzungu catching butterflies, my biggest task was to get people to catch butterflies," he said.

After the first group of locals got cash rewards from the butterflies, he said, the others realised the venture was much easier than poaching, charcoal burning or logging, which were tough and dangerous.

Gordon then began following the legal framework of obtaining permits for exporting the butterfly pupae to Europe and America.

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