The Business of Silkworm farming: A Fibre-to-Fabric Success Story from Kenya

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Founded by three friends – Lucy, Cynthia and Christina – Tosheka Textiles is a social enterprise that was founded in a semi-arid county in South-Eastern Kenya, Makueni, in the town of Wote.

Initially, the company was a Community Based Organization (CBO) that runs a fibre-to-fabric business model; it grew cotton and made handy products from the harvested cotton.

The company has positioned itself as an eco-friendly and ethical textile brand that follows fair labour practices and provides artisans with sustainable incomes, and applies techniques that preserve culture, such as the traditional Kenyan weaving, knitting, and crochet techniques.

A big part of the inspiration behind the company was to preserve the traditional skills and knowledge of ‘green’ textile production in Kenya.  This was achieved by blending traditional designs with contemporary designs in order to produce products that were beneficial to the environment and attractive to consumers.

The move from cotton to silkworm

Cotton as a cash crop was no longer sustainable for the company and prices were really low. And it became challenging to make a profit and help to sustain the families working on the project.

That’s when the company pivoted into “green textile” production, which is environmentally-friendly and uses recycled materials, natural fibres and eco-friendly dyes.

To create more value for its partners (farmers) and create fast-moving products, Tosheka Textiles moved on from cotton to silkworm.

Silkworms are the larva or caterpillar of the domestic silkmoth, Bombyx mori. It is an economically important insect, and has been the primary producer of natural silk for thousands of years.

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The allure of silkworm is they can be in production throughout the year, unlike cotton which is dependent on rainy seasons; which only last a few months of the year.

Rainy seasons have drastically decreased in recent years, which add more strain to the success of the cotton-dependent textile industry.

But it’s not just any breed of silkworm…

The Mulberry is a silkworm breed widely grown by farmers in Kenya. However, due to the dry environmental conditions of the company’s location, it had to look for a more adaptable breed of silkworm.

So, Tosheka introduced Eri, a new breed of silkworm which can survive the dry conditions associated with Makueni.

The company is the first to get a commercialisation permit for Eri silkworms, which are new in the country.  It took them three years to get approval from government agencies due to procedures such as ethic trials.

The company is also creating standards of operation and standard procedures on how to: (i) train the farmers; (ii) properly farm Eri worms; and (iii) measure the quality of the silk produced.

The product range

Tosheka now produces an interesting range of products including:

‘Woven Love’ – a collection of bags and textiles inspired by the distinct ancient Kamba (a Bantu tribe in South-Eastern Kenya)

Basket weaving tradition – transformed on looms using plants and natural fibres.

Creating new textilesfabrics and products.

This collection includes up-cycled cloth clutches and handbags made of various natural fibres and upholstery fabric.

There is also a “Recycled Treasures” collection which consists of contemporary designed and elegant hand-crafted bags – made using recycled plastic bags and trimmed with other natural fibres.

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And, then there is the “Safi Tosheka” collection which comprises high-quality leather goods embellished with mud cloth and other local fabrics.

Tosheka Textiles mostly employs women

There are currently 200 women involved in the making of the various products, with plans to increase their workforce in Makueni.

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