Mohamed Khairy, a resident of Gharbia in the Nile Delta, discovered the benefits, and profits, of sericulture last summer. “I earned a reasonable sum after selling cocoons to the silk producers,” the young man proudly told Al-Monitor. “Three boxes of cocoons make one kilogram of raw silk, which sold for 600 Egyptian pounds [$33].”
The Egyptian government hopes that more young entrepreneurs will be like Khairy, who is 17 years old, and take note of the Ministry of Finance’s October announcement on lifting customs duties on the import of silkworm eggs. This decision, coupled with Egypt’s growing demand for silk goods, could present new money-making opportunities in sericulture.
“Egypt currently uses 350 tons of natural silk annually,” said Osama Mohamed Ghazy, director of the Sericulture Research Institute, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture. “Only about one ton of this amount is locally produced, while the rest is imported.”
Ghazy told Al-Monitor that cultivating silkworms has great economic potential in Egypt because it can also contribute to growth in other sectors, such as mulberry tea production, cosmetics that use silk proteins and surgical sutures.
“Our research department has succeeded in producing a cosmetic cream using natural silk,” Ghazy said. “The mulberry leaves, on which silkworms are cultivated, can also be used in mulberry tea production. Sericulture is a zero-waste sector that could have a considerable effect on the economy.”
He added, “Egypt has developed a lot in cultivation technology, so small owners can breed all year long, not just in one season.”
Sameh Ahmed, head of the Union for Silk Producers, told Al-Monitor that his organization helps promote the sector by training existing producers and encouraging new ones to get into the business. He allows, however, that it is not easy.
“There are a number of challenges that producers face, such as the high price of imported silkworm eggs due to the devaluation of the Egyptian pound. We also have a huge shortage of mulberry trees in Egypt,” Ahmed said, pointing out that the few remaining ones are in villages, primarily in the Delta region. “There is no government directive or subsidy to plant more trees.”
Ahmed believes the government should allocate land and subsidies for silkworm breeders to cultivate mulberry trees close to where they live. Silkworms prefer the leaves of the white mulberry tree.
“The [number of] mulberry trees has decreased a lot over the past ten years, so they can only be found in certain areas, which are not always accessible to those who want to enter the industry,” Ahmed remarked.
Khairy cultivated his cocoons in mulberry trees on the riverbanks of the Delta on the outskirts of Gharbia. “I used the mulberry trees in my village, but the residents were against it,” the young breeder said, adding that many of them were not aware of the business potential.
Importing silkworm eggs for cultivating is an expensive start-up by Egyptian standards. “A box of imported silkworm eggs costs 420 Egyptian pounds [$23], while a local one costs 120 Egyptian pounds [$6.70], but there is a shortage of local eggs,” Ahmed told Al-Monitor. “Egypt is currently overcoming the shortage of silkworm eggs by importing them from China, Japan and the EU.”
Shaimaa Serag Emara, an economist, told Al-Monitor that the Finance Ministry’s tariff exemption followed a request by the Ministry of Trade and Industry to lift the duties to boost silkworm production. The current number of silk producers does not exceed 1,000, Serag said.
According to Ahmed, silkworm breeders are primarily located in Menoufia, Qalyubia, Fayoum, Dakahlia and Gharbia. “They usually sell what they produce to two major factories in Egypt,” he said, noting that the union owns one of these factories and the Agriculture Ministry owns the other one.
Carpet manufacturing is one of the main industries in need of raw natural silk. Mohamed Ibrahim Nawara, an official in the Menofuia Governor’s Office, said manufacturers buy raw natural silk from the Ministry of Agriculture and the local union of the silk producers and from promoters on Facebook to produce natural silk carpets. Menofuia is the home to most of the silk-carpet factories in Egypt.
Nawara explained that after purchasing cocoons, the makers must reel and spin the silk before it can be used. Natural silk carpets range in price from 3,000 to 150,000 Egyptian pounds ($167 to $836) per meter, according to Nawara.
The European Union is the destination of 90% of local, natural silk carpet exports, Nawara remarked, adding, “The main competitors for Egypt are China, Iran and Turkey.”