Silkworms spin profits for rural economy of Egypt

Mahrous Ahmed Naggar, a sharecropper in this village 30 miles north-northwest of Cairo, plans to go on the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca this year. A religious duty for all Muslims, the hajj is also a source of honor and joy for those financially able to undertake it. But for many farmers in Egypt, where the per capita annual income is less than $700, a pilgrimage is too expensive.

Mr. Naggar, who leases an acre of land for $65 a year to grow a corn crop not worth much more than his rent, is able to afford his hajj because of the mulberry trees growing in his garden and the cottage silk industry he runs two months of the year on his back porch.

Besides being an agriculturalist, Naggar is a sericulturalist. He raises finicky silkworms on a diet of mulberry leaves, and the women of his household spin their cocoons into silk thread.

The Naggars are one of about 700 families on the Nile Delta, mostly in the Qalyubiya and Minufiya Provinces, who raise silkworms under a small-scale development project administered by Roman Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture. Now four years old, the project is funded by grants from the Bank of America Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the United States Agency for International Development.

According to Michelle Lamprakes, CRS's new silk-project administrator in Cairo, the main goal of Catholic Relief is to reintroduce sericulture to Egypt as an income-producing activity for poor rural families.

``We're concerned with grass-roots development and appropriate technology,'' says Miss Lamprakes.

Dr. Fawzia Kotbi, head of the Sericulture Division of the Egyptian Agriculture Ministry, agrees, but she has her eyes fixed on the broader objective of Egypt's substituting domestic raw silk fibers for the 200 tons of Chinese silk the country imports every year at a cost of $7 million to $8 million.

So far, the CRS and ministry objectives have been compatible. But a divergence of opinion over what is technologically ``appropriate'' could be in the offing. The ministry is contemplating high technology as a means of boosting Egypt's silkworm industry. But officials of CRS, which focuses its energies on developing family farms, are not so sure that is the best route.

With the aid of CRS and its funders, Korean silkworm eggs have been imported yearly; mulberry saplings have been planted; interest-free credit has been extended to project participants; and training classes in sericulture, as well as in the critical skill of silk spinning, or reeling, have been conducted.

By the end of the 1983 growing season, the project had raised Egypt's production of silkworm cocoons by five tons, about 40 percent of total output. Raw silk production has now reached six tons a year, enough for weaving about 92,000 yards of silk textiles.

Raising the worms is a lucrative and fairly simple six-week task. With one box of cheap, often free, eggs distributed in March, a farmer with a dark growing room, plenty of mulberry leaves, and no disinclination to feed hungry worms in the middle of the night can expect to harvest cocoons in early June worth about $90.

Most worm-rearing families raise two boxes a year. The Naggars, who themselves raised three egg boxes of worms this year, bought the cocoons from other growers and reeled a total of 40 kilos (88 pounds) of silk during May and June. A kilo of silk skeins brings about $30.

Unfortunately for the project's long-term success, the quality of manually reeled Egyptian silk is still low, compared with the imported Chinese variety. More than any other factor, this inhibits a larger market. Reeling could be the obstacle on which the entire project might founder.

Dr. Kotbi wants Egypt to import mechanical reeling machines that would enhance the fineness of the silk fibers. She also wants to see new fiber-twisting equipment introduced so Egypt's booming hand-woven silk carpet industry will buy Egyptian silk.

``We could import these machines and then learn to make them here,'' Kotbi says. ``But the Ministry of Industry doesn't pay attention to a small department in the Ministry of Agriculture.''

According to a CRS brochure, the silk project ``places great emphasis on . . . full family participation in activities which do not conflict with traditional living patterns.'' Mechanical equipment could move silk reeling out of cottages and into factories.

For now, Miss Lamprakes, who traveled to Syria in August to study that Arab country's silk reeling, is weighing the alternatives and hoping that better training will improve next year's product, part of which will be raised and reeled by a man with a new appellation.

For next year, Mr. Naggar will ascend the social scale a step. He will be known as Al-Hajj Mahrous, the sericulturalist.

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