What season or period are your products produced?
We work with a farming community, and therefore our spinning, weaving, and bag making production activities by producer groups are planned around their agricultural activities. We have two rain and farming seasons. The first and major farming season is during our short rain seasons which start around late October to early / mid-November. Our producers are therefore not available to produce from about the third week of October to the first week of November when they cultivate the land and plant their crops. After this we only have a month before we start our holiday season around December 12, Kenya’s Independence Day holiday to Christmas and New Years Day. The long rains start Mid March to early April, again during this time our producers take time off to cultivate and plant. Therefore we plan our production especially for the producer groups around May /June and July/August/ September. Coincidentally the other months October, November, December, January and stretching all the way through April are a good time for our local sales, for the holiday season, and back to school sales when our school calendar year starts in January.
For the Eri Silk production, we depend on the availability of the castor plant leaves. Between February and April and then September thru October (before the rainy season begins), the leaves shed off. At this time we will reduce Eri Silk Production because of the leaves but our egg production unit where we can irrigate our castor plants we will maintain the Eri worm production.
Explain the Eri Silk Worm patent? How is the silk extracted without killing the worm?
Tosheka Textiles currently has the only and first permit to commercialize the Eri silk worm production in Kenya. Although a patent for the Eri Silk Worm already exists in other parts of the world, we may consider licensing the processes that are unique to our Kenyan product development.
We are currently in the course of developing our standard production and operating procedures from our experiences since we started early 2016.
Unlike the mulberry silk, which requires the boiling of the whole cocoon, intact with the pupae to extract the silk and as a result the pupae are killed through this process, the Eri silk worm has an open mouth on the cocoon that allows the butterfly to emerge from the pupae inside the silk cocoon. This process is why the Eri is considered a peace silk. Very little water is used to produce the Eri silk, and it has zero waste. Because is food source needs very little water to cultivate, and the plants can survive drought, it can be practiced and sustained in dry lands. The end product of the Eri Silk fabric has excellent thermal properties. It keeps you cool in the hot season and keeps you warm in cold weather.
Does Eri Silk Cotton feel different from regular cotton harvested in the cotton community?
Eri Silk feel is very similar to our cotton but it soft and fluffy.
How long does this process take? Are there any specific tools for this process?
Our cotton producers who harvest cotton annually can now produce Eri Silk after 19 to 26 days depending on the weather temperatures. It takes another ten to 14 days to create the Eri silk Eggs/seed worm that is distributed to farmers to provide the cocoons. To initiate the process of rearing the eri silk worms: farmers require a shed that is designed to ensure the worm is safe from its predators. This is not as sophisticated as it sounds. The farmer may use an existing structure within their homestead. For farmers who have minimal structures in their homes, we have designed a rearing unit for their homes. This is one of the issues we are addressing to minimize the start up costs of the farmers. The on going rearing process requires very little and minimal costs. Tosheka has established a ‘grainage ‘ facility to produced the disease free layings’ of eggs/worms that are sold to farmers to produce silk cocoons. The grainage is designed with equipment to facilitate the process of creating the disease free layings.
How do you work with the Kenyan Community?
We collaborate with the Akamba community in Makueni County located in the Eastern part of Kenya. This community exists under the umbrella of Wote Community Development Organization (WCDO) registered under the ministry of Youth, Gender and Social Services as a community-based organization. The Akamba people are known for their traditional basket weaving and wood carving skills. Tosheka has utilized these skills to produce contemporary basket and bag products using clean recycled plastic bags and cotton. Tosheka has now introduced Eri Silk as a new fiber for the production of handspun yarn and hand weaved fabrics and rugs. The introduction of this new fiber is also an alternative to the rain fed cotton that has not been very beneficial to our targeted communities. Eri Silk has the potential of addressing the poverty levels in the community we are working with. Tosheka is targeting 3,000 households who will increase their income by 30 times. Cotton provides a merger of annual income to the farmers. Whereas Eri Silk will provide monthly revenue that is more sustainable. Our mission is to empower disadvantaged communities through trade. In partnership with Marafiki Arts, a US- based organization we have had exchange programs where artisans can build their trade and sell.
How much does Eri Silk cost?
It cost can range for $ 25 - $ 40.
How much does regular cotton cost as per the fibre directorate?
The minimum price was 42 Ksh per KG and we were guaranteed at planting the framers 100 Ksh per KG to stimulate the participation.
How does the political climate in Kenyan affect your work as a social entrepreneurial focused on sustainability?
Kenya National and local governments like many globally are not at the forefront of supporting local business and social enterprises. There are a few stakeholders that participate and support the work we are doing. We currently enjoy the support of the Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organization, who are providing the research aspect of the Eri Worm considering it is new in this country. We also have the support of the Kenya Plant and Health Inspectorate Service who keep an audit of our Eri Silk production and ensure that the process is not detrimental to the agricultural and environmental attributes.
Are there any specific regulations related to the textile industry and trading that you have helped establish in Kenya?
Tosheka has been instrumental in the cotton growing and now the introduction of Eri Silk production in Kenya. Previously cotton farmers depended on the world prices to determine what they would fetch for the cotton grown. That means they would grow the cotton without knowing how much they would fetch for their products. Through Tosheka’s initiative, the government passed legislature for the Cotton Authority (now the fibre directorate) to set a minimum price for cotton so that farmers were aware of what they would reap from the cotton growing. The introduction of Eri Silk provides the farmers with an alternative to cotton growing that will generate more income and is more environmentally beneficial. Cotton is referred to as a dirty crop because it requires a lot of pesticides, whereas Eri’s food source requires no pesticides.
Have there been challenges? If so how did you overcome these problems as a business owner in the fashion industry?
Our biggest problem is nature of the business that we have purposely decided to do. That is taking on the role of Government and their ministries to establish viable textile industry by supporting the production of natural fibers ( organic cotton & Eri Silk ) in sufficient quality and quantity to revive the National textile industry. Our business would be very profitable if we could focus on our core ability’s which are textile design and printing verses starting from producing fiber. A company that empowers the disadvantaged through trade, a green textile business bearing in mind the effects of textile production to the environment. Price is very much a key factor for most people who may purchase any product, and textile products are very competitive. We are challenged with producing handmade textile products that are aesthetically attractive, high quality, and competitively priced, as well as provide a sustainable income to our producers. The fact that this business is female owned it has been challenging to get substantial credit without matching collateral. However, through the very competitive Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund, Tosheka was able to secure significant funds to initiate the Eri silk production.
What's on the horizon for your garment and accessory production?
Because of the lack of availability of quality cotton other natural fibers and textiles in Kenya we began producing bags from recycled plastic, local cloth, and leather in Mali to supplement our income. My husband Herman has become our accessory and bag designer and has well established this line in the high-end market.
Our plans are to concentrate on the accessory, home furnishings ( rugs, place mats, etc) and printed and knitted textile production. Our mission is to increase Eri silk production; I believe this has the potential of impacting the income levels of the communities we target to work with and can be replicated to other parts of the country and the region.