A Rare Silk Business Venture to increase Women Income in the Semi-Arids in Kenya

By Emilly Mbiriti/Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund

Tosheka Textiles Ltd (TTL) is a good example of a company with a climate adaptation business model that has benefitted from StARCK+ funding under the REACT funding window of the AECF. The company was awarded US$256,382 as a repayable grant for its innovative business that was seeking to introduce a special type of silk, suited to production in semi-arid areas, into Kenya.

Cotton production in Makueni has been in a slump and there has been the need for additional and diversified sources of income. Through TTL, famers can now cope with the increasing uncertainties in weather patterns resulting from climate variability and change.

As a result of winning AECF funding , TTL has set up a Main Processing Facility (MPF) that serves two functions. First, the MPF produces Eri eggs that are sold to trained worm rearers who then produce cocoons which are purchased back by Tosheka for processing into raw silk. Second, the MPF is used to process the raw silk and cotton into machine spun yarn which is then provided to contracted weavers for the production of the fabrics.

Since 2004 Wote Community Development Organization’ self-help groups have received technical skills training in production of hand spun cotton yarn, woven, dyed and printed textiles and related products, sponsored by Marafiki Arts, a not for profit organization based in

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA. In 2010 one of the Co-founders of Marafiki Arts, Lucy Lau Bigham, started TTL with the objective of building a stronger supply chain for the products of the self-help groups and in providing the market access. The market is targeting both domestic and export markets serving the fashion and home furnishings industries. Tosheka’s business model is to work with clusters of community enterprise groups for the introduction, rearing and production of the Eri silk. These groups have been trained on the production of hand spun cotton yarn and woven, dyed and printed textiles. Eri silk blends well with cotton.

TTL is an interesting example of a woman-owned business that has the objective of working with women throughout its supply chain. This is of particular significance in Makueni, where the women who rear the silk and do the hand spinning of the fabric are from low income communities. Women in the area are traditionally known for their weaving skills, so the business is building on these and innovating in the blending of traditional with modern practices. Caterpillar rearing, is mostly done within the homestead making it attractive to women. Through TTL they have been able to have an additional income.

There is an additional “psychological” benefit as well! According to Veronicah Nduku spinning and weaving provides her welcome relief from her day to day stress, “not only do we make additional income by supplying Tosheka, we also expect to live longer, this a critical health benefit we can’t just ignore!” It was reported that it iwas the women who first showed interest in caterpillar rearing, but that men become involved once they saw the benefits of this activity. TTL has taken a holistic approach that includes men in consultations and, importantly, includes them in the value chain – such as in the building of grainage rooms and rearing units and any other jobs that require carpentry and construction skills.

There are two additional intangible, but significant benefits that the AECF has brought to TTL. The first is that by showing confidence and investing in TTL, the AECF has de-risked the company and as a result the company is beginning to look attractive to other potential investors. Second, the AECF network and “brand name” has helped to open doors for TTL. For example, through linking up with another AECF grantee (Quite Bright Films), also funded under StARCK+, TTL was invited to participate in KCB Lion’s Den, a Kenyan TV show. As a result, the company won an equity investment from two of the Lion’s Den investors who also have wide experience in the fashion industry and bring their expertise into the company.

The StARCK+ Adaptation learning report undertaken in November 2016 indicated that while caterpillar production may not be seen by farmers as an adaptation to climate change, it appears to be climate resilient, and offers an alternative, highly profitable, livelihood activity that can be expected to be sustainable under drought conditions, where other activities such as cotton production and perhaps even fruit production may become less viable. See more: www.aecfafrica.org