Production of wild silk in Africa has a tradition forhundreds of years, yet, has been away from the common sight. About 60 speciesof wild silkmoths are known alone in East Africa. The authors have undertaken asilk journey to seven African countries to explore the practices there, andintroduce the readers to many facts hitherto unknown in the lands outside.
It is common knowledge that trees disappear and forestsdeteriorate rapidly in many parts of Africa, partly because of over-felling, inparticular for firewood, and also worsening and increasing periods of droughts.
When one does not re-plant, problems are created not onlyfor the supply of fire wood for cooking food, but also for supply of otherproducts from trees. More the products and higher the value of these products,more are the farmers interested in preserving such trees, and protecting them frombeing felled.
Wood is not the only important direct return from trees, butalso for feeding animals. This is the case with honeybees, sucking nectars fromflowers, and with insects that feed on leaves. Larvae of wild silkmoths belongto the latter group. About 60 species of wild silkmoths are known alone in East Africa.
On a seven-week silk journey to seven African countries duringOctober-November, 2007, the authors experienced that peasants-apart fromrearing cocoons of mulberry silkmoth-grew and collected silk cocoons of fourwild silkmoth species in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Madagascar and BurkinaFaso. They also saw people weaving silk fabrics from yarn spun by larvae of boththe mulberry and wild silkmoths. The wild silk is sumptuous, thick, light brownand with a raw structure that may be labelled as African silks.
Silk from wild silkmoths has presumably been spun forhundreds of years in Africa, but only few people outside the continent havebeen aware of this.
In 2007, the villagers in Safan village in Burkina Faso, West Africa processed silk from a yet unidentified species of a wild silkmoth. The SilkAssociation in the village consists of 43 members, 32 women and 11 men. Aselsewhere in West Africa, men are weaving the narrow fabrics on strip looms,whilst the women remove the silk from the cocoons, card and spin the raw silk,and finally sew the narrow woven lengths together.
The procedure is that the cocoons are collected from certaintree species, locally called Coco Yiri and placed in water with potash. Thecocoons are boiled and thereafter kept in a clay container with water for abouta month. This will dissolve the sericin that keeps the threads in the cocoontogether. Thereafter, the silk can be removed from the cocoon and carded, justlike one cards the wool. Then, the silk is spun on a hand spindle (distaff). Finally,the yarn is dyed and dried and the men can start weaving. They weave fabrics withbroad bands of cotton integrated with narrow bands of silk. Lack of cocoonsrestricts the size and numbers of silk bands.
The trees from which the cocoons are collected have become scarcerand people must move up to 50 km to find them. The long distance to the cocoonresource is a big problem for the Silk Association. They wish to get treeseedlings to be planted in the neighbourhood of the village.
The problem of conserving trees that provide food for wildsilkmoths is not unique. In Madagascar, the tree species Tapia (Uopacabojeri) is the host plant for the wild silkmoth Boroceramadagascariensis. Because the Tapia-forests are under heavy pressure fromover-felling, several NGOs now assist with a programme of improved cultivationof the silkmoth combined with planting of young Tapia trees.
Same is the case in the north-eastern part of Kenya, where the larvae of the wild silkmoth Gonemeta postica feed on leaves ofseveral Acacia species. With the support from the International Centrefor Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), a Farmer Association has establisheda market place for wild silk cocoons, for its members. The cocoons are then spunand woven to so-called Savanna silk. Cocoons of Gonometa arealso utilized in South Africa, where production of shawls, cushions, dresses,teddy bears and many more products takes place. Tourists buy most of the silkwares.
The Commercial Insect Branch of ICIPE, led by Prof. S.K. Raina,
supports activities in several African countries. In order not to extinct the
wild silkmoths, members of Silk Associations are being trained by ICIPE-staff
in controlled management of the silkmoth and the trees. Farmers collect cocoons
which are placed in a small cage of nylon net. After emergence, the adult female
moths mate and lay eggs. The small larvae are transferred to small trees,
covered by nylon net bags. Here, the larvae feed and spin their cocoons, which
finally are collected by the farmers. The farmers are interested in conserving
the trees and plant new seedlings themselves.
Both in Kenya and Nigeria, larvae of wild silkmoths (Anaphe panda and Anaphe infracta, respectively) live in colonies on tamarind trees. A colony consists of several hundreds of larvae spinning themselves into one big light bright cocoon bag, surrounding lots of individual white cocoons. In Kenya, the silk is called Rain forest silk. In some places, the cocoons are hunted by people, who find the pupae inside the cocoons to be a great gastronomic delicacy. Silk of another wild silkmoth species in Kenya (Argema mimosa) is produced and sold under the name Sea breeze silk.
We are convinced that wild silkmoths are utilized in several other places in Africa, and that the idea of using this type of silks could be spread to even more countries and locations with the tradition of weaving. Farmers just require a bit of assistance to find and grow the host trees for a specific silkmoth and may be some support to market the woven products.
One of the main problems for African peasants is lack of cash, necessary for a better livelihood and providing their children an education. Such money can be obtained from small activities such as sale of fruits from wild trees or products from insects living on trees, like honey and wild silk. In the large context, these activities may seem insignificant, but for poor peasants, they are often seen as means to development away from poverty.
In Africa, small initiatives often give relatively big returns. And when the initiatives combine economy and ecology, the investment becomes sustainable. It is better to implement one down-to-earth idea than to have ten good, but ambitious ideas on stock!
References: Researchers at ICIPE have been main contributors. The authors travel in Africa resulted in a book, written together with ICIPE researchers: African Ways of Silk. Ancient threads-new possibilities, by Ole Zethner, Rie Koustrup and Suresh Kumar Raina and published by The Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS) in Cape Town, South Africa.
Dr. Ole Zethner is a retired university professor, insect researcher and international consultant, while Mrs. Rie Koustrup is a retired primary school teacher.
Originally published in Indian Silk: April 2010