An exotic industry takes off on the edge of the Kalahari
Text and photos by Bill Torbitt
Politicians like to talk about a win-win situation. Unfortunately, these situations are rather rare in real life – what one wins is generally at the expense of the other guy who loses, like in a game of poker. You might have predatory wildlife flourishing, good for tourism but at the expense of farmers and their livestock. In the contrary jargon, these are called zero-sum games.
How pleasant it is then, especially in view of the difficult history of Namibian employment-generating schemes, as well as in the difficult context of rural development, that we can report on what is a genuine win-win situation. Take Gonometa postica, the silk moth, which emerges from its cocoon around November/ December in the depths of the Kalahari. Not many people even know there are silk moths in the Kalahari, but more of that anon.
The empty cocoons lie around on the ground, and are eaten by farm as well as wild animals, the choice of diet for animals in the Kalahari always being limited. The problem is that these cocoons swell up like a hairball in a cat, sometimes completely blocking the digestive tract and causing the animal to literally die from starvation. Up until a couple of years ago, nobody had any solution to this problem, except for trying to poison the moths with insecticide – expensive, ineffective, and in terms of the environment, not even a win-lose situation.
What now if you collect these cocoons (thereby saving the animals), extract the silk, spin and weave the material, and end up with a small but viable silk industry, creating significant local employment in a region where previously there was basically none? Remember that this provides not only employment for silk spinners, weavers and garment producers, but also income for the people who collect the cocoons.
Add the creation of a beautiful product that is starting to place the region on the map, attracting the attention of tourists, and becoming internationally known. This you might definitely call a win-win situation. But silk on the fringes of the Southern African desert? A long way from China, the home of silk? Yes, but it doesn’t matter. In addition to the spinning of silk, it is also an interesting and inspiring story.
The project owes its success to the charismatic Ian Cummings, a South African and silk-industry professional, who gained much of his experience in the exotic surroundings of Madagascar. There, silk has a mystic ritual significance, intrinsic to the wrapping of the dead.
There have been previous attempts to start wild-silk projects in Southern Africa. One was in Botswana and was quite large at one stage, but it was not sustained for various reasons and was closed in the early nineties.
The Namibian project started in 2002 and received initial funding from Oxfam Canada, as well as from Namibia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Rural Development. This support has unfortunately now come to an end, so new investors are urgently required. Not least of the problems was that Ian had to overcome the scepticism of conventional local farmers, who had conservative opinions on the potential of the area, as well as on the potential of the local workforce.
Ecological considerations are kept in the forefront. There is a rigorous ban on collecting cocoons before the moth has left them. This is also motivated by self-interest, since otherwise the moth population would be depleted and there would be no more silk cocoons to harvest.
The thread obtained is rather thicker and tougher than its Asian counterpart, and of a brownish colour in its natural state, perhaps appropriate for African silk. The consistency is rather like thick cashmere. Currently, the fabric is dyed using normal commercial materials, but experiments are being done with natural colorants, such as eucalyptus, which results in a beautiful dark-green shade.
No matter how good an idea it may be, there are, of course, constraints. You can’t just switch into intensive industrial production. For one thing, you can’t work with more than the number of cocoons the silk moths have decided to produce. For another, the training of workers is time-consuming and the painstaking manual process places a severe limit on the yardage of material that can be produced. The solution is to start farming or cultivating the moths, and introducing more automatic machinery into the process. For instance, automated looms are now being sought from India, which will increase output from the present one metre plus per day to six metres of material per hour!
The factory is situated in the tiny town of Leonardville, about 200 kilometres south east of Windhoek, on the fringes of the Kalahari. The red dunes intrude almost into the settlement. The factory employs twenty full-time staff, about ten more part-time, as well as 200 cocoon harvesters, who do this in addition to their normal farm work.
Ian says that more important even than the hoped-for long-term success of the project and the product, is the transformation of the lives of the workers, who have been afforded skills, a stable income and perhaps an interest in life.
Visitors (within reason!) are welcome at the facility when there is someone available to show them around. Open days, or rather open weekends, are held occasionally. Visitors receive hospitality and camp on a local farm. They are encouraged to visit the homes of the local workers (by donkey cart!), undertake expeditions into the dunes, and so on. It makes for a unique and extremely interesting outing.
If you can’t visit Leonardville, there is a small but well laid-out showroom in the suburbs of Windhoek, just a couple of minutes drive from the middle of town. For inquiries for opening times, see the number below. Please support the project – the scarves and shawls are reasonably priced, look beautiful and will make a great talking point back home. A new line is the range of duvets filled with wild silk, available in all sizes, light, hypoallergenic, warm in winter and cool in summer. Definitely a win-win product!
NAMIBIA CRAFT CENTRE – Kalahari Wild Silk is one of the stall-holders at the Namibia Craft Centre.
Flamingo, April 2006