Late Rainy Season Cuts Silk Production in Half

Cambodian silk production is set to fall about 50 percent this year due to a late rainy season that has prevented mulberry trees used in the breeding of silkworms from blooming on time, according to an association of breeders and weavers.

Lower supply levels have also sent prices skyward—by more than 30 percent compared to the same period last year.

Chamnab Ho, marketing manager of Khmer Silk Villages, a nationwide association of silk weavers and silkworm breeders that tracks industry statistics, said that nationwide silk production by the end of this year would reach between 2 and 3 tons, compared to a total of 5 tons produced last year.

“Raw material has not in­creased this year, as we have had some problems with the climate,” said Mr Ho.

A later-than-usual rainy season meant that silk makers could only plant mulberry trees in June and July rather than the usual months of April and May, he said, adding that almost all the association’s 700 silkworm breeders have been affected.

Still, high demand from local manufacturers and buyers from abroad has led prices to increase from $30 per kg of raw silk to $40 per kg, currently. Experts say that demand for golden Cam­bodian silk, generally agreed to be of higher quality than the white silk made in China, Viet­nam and Thailand, is more than 400 tons per year—the amount Cambodia must currently import to meet demand from its own silk manufacturers.

Catherine Theron, owner and designer of Kashaya Silk, a boutique selling Cambodian silk handicrafts in Phnom Penh, said that although her boutique had not been affected by the drop in production because she runs her own silk weaving center, me­diocre production levels were a major burden for buyers.

But in an industry that uses traditional methods that are often time-consuming and dependent on the weather, increasing production is easier said than done.

In Cambodia, silk is handcrafted and organically made, while in China, Vietnam and Thailand silk production is more industrialized and uses chemicals.

“There’s sometimes not enough rain, and mulberry leaves can sometimes suffer from disease,” said Ms Theron. “The best silk is the Cambodian one. But the production is very scarce, and it is getting more and more expensive.”

The end result is that Cam­bodia can compete on quality, but it loses out to other countries that mass-produce for international markets.

Although the industry must grapple with poor production levels and low levels of investment, sales among the weavers that make up Khmer Silk Villages have increased by about 10 percent, to almost a ton so far this year.

Production of silk is greatly re­duced, but “there are many people who want to use it,” Mr Ho said, adding that weavers had started to sell less raw material and more finished products, such as bags and garments.

However, the sector is still in drastic need of private investment, with most of the cash being injected into the sector coming from silk weaving communities themselves.

Last week, the Hong Kong-based trading company Wana International Group, which supplies Wal-Mart stores in the US, placed a $2,000 order with the Export Service Center Cambodia for silk scarves and bags sourced from five suppliers in Phnom Penh and Kandal province.

The order is tiny, but it is at least a sign that silk exports are starting to diversify beyond those of a few high-end boutiques dealing with international clients.

“We are still new to each other,” said Kunthy Heng, export manager in Cambodia for The Kearny Alliance, an international trade organization that counts the Export Service Center among its members.

The Kearny Alliance will also showcase Cambodian silk products at the China Sourcing Fair in Hong Kong later this month in order to attract new buyers.

“At this fair, we are looking for not-so-big buyers, as our capacity here is very limited, so we prefer other small and medium buyers,” said Ms Heng.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is also helping to fund silk sector development. Last year, the agency financed a $475,000 project to work with the government to create a production center for silkworm eggs as well as seven demonstration farms being established to train local residents in the rearing of silkworms.

“The main problem is the lack of silk yarn production,” said Pheanuroth Sisowath, senior technical adviser for International Trade Center in Cambodia, which has been working with the Ministry of Commerce since 2007, developing policy in silk breeding, weaving and marketing.

Mr Sisowath also confirmed that national silk production was set to fall to between 2 and 3 tons this year.

Mr Sisowath said he is lobbying the government to create a silk board made up of members from both the public and private sectors. The creation of a similar outfit in Bangalore, India, has already helped to increase production levels as well as exports, he said.

“We need more strength from the international community and especially need more private in­vestment,” he said. “The silk board will be the ultimate organization to strengthen the whole sector in terms of policy…investment and research.”

Though higher in initial costs, he said investment in 1 hectare of mulberry trees would generate about $2,000 in profits from silk, compared to just $700 per hec­tare for rice.

 

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