Hanging by a thread
A lot has been put into establishing silk industry in Nepal. Despite the years of effort from the government, the non-government and the private sector, the industry’s future still hangs on a balance. Here is a brief journey through the hopeful past, the tricky present and the possible future of silk production in Nepal.
When sericulture, silk production process, was initiated by the government some forty years ago, everyone thought it was a flawless plan: It would mobilize poor farmers working in rural areas, and produce silk –‘the queen of textiles’. The government was enthusiastic about the newly hatched “silk movement”. It had the support of foreign organizations, and the farmers were hopeful. In 1999 the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) also introduced sericulture as a part of their poverty alleviation program. Soon after, even the Japanese organization – Japanese International Cooperation Association (JICA) adopted sericulture in their programs. Their contribution of the Zakuri technique, an ancient Japanese machine used to spin silk thread helped make many farmers independent to weave their own thread. Through these various initiations local silk production was boosted at different points in time.
With enthusiasm of the government, international support and farmers ready to risk it all, silk production it seems must be flourishing. But everything hasn’t gone according to plan and the industry – in the verge of a letdown – is still hanging on by a thread, be it a smooth, versatile and strong thread made from silk.
Sericulture demands a smooth transition through the different phases of silk production: From rearing silk worms and selling silk yarns to promotion. Firstly, the government sells silk worm eggs to the farmers who rear them and sell the products to the private companies. Some of the cocoons are turned to silk thread by the farmers and some are sold to private firms that manufacture silk and silk products. However, most private companies that deal with silk have hesitated to buy local silk.
Most of the government’s involvement falls under the pre cocoon stage of sericulture. Silk worm eggs are reared and hatched in Khopasi, ready to be distributed to the different pocket regions. Dhading and Chitwan are the most popular regions, along with Illam, Kavre, Syangja, Kaski and Dhankuta, which also have considerable number of silk farmers. The worm eggs are sold to the farmers for Rs 25 a box, each containing around 20,000 eggs. The amount of silk cocoons or koya produced from this can be anywhere from a couple of kilograms to twenty-five, depending on the quality of the silk worms. The silk worms feed on mulberry plants, which have been grown on farmers’ lands where they previously grew crops.
Currently, the government buys a portion of the total production. It buys the A-class silk cocoons at rates that fluctuate between Rs 275 and Rs 375 per kilogram. While the hand spun silk sells for Rs 3,000 per kilogram. However, as there aren’t any private companies involved in silk production, and the amount of silk based production found locally is negligible, it has been difficult for the farmers to sustain themselves. Consequently, despite the efforts the farmers are leaving the sector at an alarming rate, cutting their losses from planting mulberry trees on their arable lands.
The Private Despair
A few years ago, Kamal Bista had made an effort to utilize the native hand-spun silk in his company. This was his attempt to support Nepali silk. But it did not turn out as well as he had hoped. “We were exporting our products to Russia at the time, but we could not meet the high demand of our clients. In the end we had to stop using the Nepali silk,” says Bista. His company Shangrila Silk and Pashmina uses imported silk yarn to make pashminas in Nepal. The amount of silk available in the local market was not enough to sustain his company. “It is understandable that private companies use imported silk,” explains Gita Shrestha, promoter for Nepali Silk. The annual amount of silk cocoons harvested here is, at an average, thirty six thousand kilograms. The amount of silk yarn spun from this sums up to fifteen hundred kilograms. Shrestha further justifies, “It is impossible to meet the demand for three hundred thousand kilograms of yarn.”
Almost all the private silk manufacturers produce silk patina from imported silk. A large amount is imported from India and China, the largest producers of silk in the global arena. Most of silk thread produced in Nepal is hand-spun, which do not have smooth and uniform features of machine-spun silk. Therefore, majority of the silk produced in Nepal do not meet the expectations of the global silk market. Simply put, the expression ‘smooth as silk’ doesn’t apply to hand-spun silk made in Nepal. The local demand for high quality silk is thus met with imported silk that cost 91$ per kilogram, a vast difference compared to the price of local silk.
Despite the demand, the local stakeholders have not ventured into producing their own machine-spun silk. The complex machinery needed to prepare industrial silk thread needs high maintenance and needs to be constantly used. The amount of silk produced in Nepal will not even last to manufacture a months’ worth. The Government’s Department of Silk Development, situated in Khopasi does own a multi-end reeling machine that spins silk yarn. However, it is still a struggle to fulfill the demand for high quality silk of the private industries.“In the competitive market, private sectors like ours need substantial production to survive.” says Bista. Yet, there is still hope. He believes with better government policies and skilled manpower, the quality of local silk can progress.
Saving the Nepali Silk
Nepal Silk, a private company initiated by Mohini Maharjan and Gita Shrestha, has been on a mission to promote locally produced silk for four and a half years. Along with producing the traditional silk yarn and Pashmina, Nepal Silk have also been manufacturing different apparels like bags and jewelries and cosmetic products like soap, silk oil to silk scrub cloths made entirely from silk. “Silk is a very versatile textile.” says Mohini Maharjan, co-owner of Nepal Silk. “Most people do not realize the potential silk has. We can extract protein from silk that can be used to make silk soaps and cosmetic powder. We can also use the coarse hand-spun silk to make scrub cloths. At this point, we are also experimenting to unlock other alternate utilities of silk.” The by-products also hold other promises, as the quality of the cocoons does not affect the products that are made from the by-products.
“The farmers usually bring the cocoons here. Sometimes we go over to the villages to collect the silk. But transportation has been a major hurdle. Occasionally, we also get the cocoons from the government,” says Maharjan. Their venture has been able to grasp the attention of some foreign clients but the local market hasn’t got the hang of it yet. Most people are even skeptic about their products. Promoting themselves in the local market is a seemingly herculean task. Mohini Maharjan further adds, “Initially we went by the name Community Trade Link, but we have been promoting our products as Nepal Silk for a while now. We modified our name because we needed to show people that we are here to promote Nepali silk industry.”
The government’s attention has also recently been renewed towards uplifting this industry. After experiencing the unsatisfactory results, it has been planning new models of sericulture. “Since the initial plan for sericulture did not succeed as expected, we are working on a new concept called Integrated Silk Farming,” says Sunita Paudel, Industrial Entomologist at the Department of Agriculture, “Along with the rearing of silkworms farmers can also involve in goat or fish rearing. Silk worms are high in protein. The waste matter from silkworms can be utilized as a supplement for fish farming. Silk worms only eat the tender leaves of the mulberry tree so the leftovers could be used as fodder for cattle as well. Simultaneously farming two livestock at once means the farmers can engage themselves during the off seasons.” This model hopes to reduce 30% of the initial loss seen in silk worm rearing.
Hand crafted goods made in Nepal have always had an appeal in the global market. Take the wool and pashmina industry for an example, with trained manpower and a long tradition of craft, the locally hand-made products are steadily getting recognition worldwide for their uniqueness and distinct character. The silk industry can hope to fall in the same line. With its highly versatile quality it can nonetheless be a considerable asset to the local economy. The story of the silk industry is just an example of the many attempted enterprises that have resulted into less than glorious outcomes. The industry may have seen its share of disappointments but with new models and private initiations like Nepal Silk, it seems the Nepali silk industry is ready to venture out once more.