SILK farming could earn the country more compared to tea and coffee whose returns have been fluctuating.
Agriculture cabinet secretary Felix Koskei said the demand for silk is increasing while production in major producing countries like Japan, Brazil and India is declining hence availing ready market locally and abroad.
"Silk farming is the most promising enterprise with much potential in government's long term development strategy of reducing poverty and ensuring food security. We are stepping up our focus to ensure that it is supported and expanded. The government of Japan is working closely with us,"he said.
Koskei said the government with the help of Japanese government will revive the sector to enhance foreign exchange earnings and create employment opportunities as it is a labour intensive enterprise.
Speaking during the opening of a sericulture workshop at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in Nairobi, Koskei said the Japanese government has already pumped in Sh43 million for mapping while more funding to a tune of $1million to $2 million dollars was still under discussion.
The Kenya high technology silk project which started in March 2014 is a 10-month feasibility study with the objective of commercialising silk production in the country.
Ministry of agriculture, industrialisation, Kari, Oxford Biomaterials Limited, National Institute of Agro-biological science, Moi university and Jomo Kenyatta university of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) are jointly implementing the project under coordination of the deputy president's office.
"Kenya has suitable climate and cheap labour for mulberry growing and silk worm rearing but current ongoing sericulture activities like mulberry tree establishment, rearing silk worms, processing and marketing cocoons by farmers are at low levels, returns have remained low and have not attracted significant investments,"he said.
The CS said plans are underway for conversion of a sericulture station based in Thika into a national sericulture research center.
Over 600 farmers practice sericulture in Kenya but currently less than 50 have silkworms. Annual production is less than 2 metric tons of dried cocoons while the national potential is over 10,000 metric tons.
"A kilogram of dried cocoon is selling at Sh750-Sh900 and the average land size per farmer is a quarter to half an acre while the national average is 225 acres,"he said noting the unexploited potential hence the need to commercialise the subsector and make it competitive.
Koskei at the same time said access to quality silkworm eggs remain a challenge as the existing genetic material is not well known adding that there is need to characterise and evaluate silkworm strains and mulberry varieties to know genetic material and potential. Koskei said female labour dominates in silk production and will therefore help to empower women and youth as envisaged by government's policy.
Mulberry is grown in Western, Nyanza, Central, Eastern, Coast and parts of the Rift Valley something Koskei says offers great business opportunities.
"Capacity building for research and advisory services has been inadequate and limiting. To unlock the great potential in the sub-sector, there is need to look at the value chain and identify unique challenges in every segment and address them. Mulberry growing, silkworm egg production, silk worm rearing, silk cocoon reeling and silk fabric production should also be addressed,"he added.
Dr Lusike Wasilwa, the lead investigator in the project said a breeding programme to produce silk worms will be started in the country. "The success of the venture will drastically bring down the cost of silk which she said stood at Sh2000 to about Sh400. Between now and December,machines will be brought in from Japan to mimic what they are doing," she said adding that the ministry of industrialisation as well as the export processing zones will be engaged in the venture which has a lot of untapped potential.
"Researchers are doing a great job but commercialisation still remains a challenge. Vision 2030 of making the country competitive will be realised only if investments in sectors such as silk are prioritised in order to open several opportunities for industries as well as job opportunities," said Education CS Jacob Kaimenyi.