A surge in demand from local wool processing companies and foreign markets have together resuscitated Kenya's sheep farming, with wool prices now at record highs and farmers struggling to keep up with the new demand.
Kenya’s wool industry was once vibrant, in the 1990s, when the country prided itself on having fully integrated wool and textile mills - with Raymond Woollen Mills Ltd in Eldoret being the envy of the region. But the rapid liberalisation of the economy in the late 1990s saw the wool industry decline, even leading to the closure of Raymond Woollen Mills.
Now the revival of Raymond Woollen Mills, as Rupa, after being bought Indian investors,, the increased demand from the Eldoret-based Ken Kit and Spin Kit factories and a growing appetite for wool from emerging markets in COMESA and from the USA, have seen farmers in the area move back into sheep farming, with the price for wool now hitting Sh300 per kg, up from a low of Sh80 a kilo in 2006.
The Ministry of Agriculture in its livestock survey reports that rearing of sheep in West-Pokot, Marakwet and Keiyo Districts, where the mills are located, has doubled in the last 10 years, with Marakwet District, which is the leading wool producer in the region, earning Sh15.5m last year from the sale of 240,000 kilos of wool, up from Sh7m in 2000.
Likewise, Kapcherop region in Eldoret now has 33,000 wool sheep, while nearby Kapyego has 44,000.
Mark Kipyator is among the 33,000 sheep farmers in Kapcherop region who now supplies his wool to Rupa, 'selling an average 600 kilos from his 20 sheep, to earn Sh180,000 annually.
“They were moving from door to door pleading with us to invest in sheep farming. We had heard stories of our fathers who had invested in sheep farming and they got disappointed with mismanagement at the mills and that was our concern. They addressed those concerns and promised us that we would be paid upon delivery. The agreement was too good to reject at a time when maize wasn't doing so well,” said the 30-year-old father of two who sold an acre of his land to invest in the sheep farming.
This climbing demand for wool and sheep hair has also seen more mills established elsewhere in the country, with competition from the EPZ and wool merchants who export the wool directly to foreign markets working to the benefit of sheep farmers.
Alongside this expanding demand, farmers and research institutions have also been working to breed sheep that do well in particular areas. For instance, in arid and semi arid areas of North Eastern, Eastern, Coastal, North Rift and parts of Nyanza, breeds such as Dorper, Persian Black, Red Masaai and Nyanza Fat Tail have proven ideal, according to scientists.
In high rainfall, cold areas of Central, Rift Valley, Western and parts of Coast and Nyanza, wool breeds such as Merino, Romney Marsh, Corriendale and the Hampshire have performed well.
Sheep rearing is considered one of the easiest livestock ventures, requiring relatively little tending, save for guarding against deformation and foot rot. Moreover, the majority of the breeds in the country give birth twice a year, meaning that with 1 male ram and 2 female ewes, a farmer will have about 31 heads of sheep stock within three years. Lambs reach maturity within a year and shearing is done twice a year, preferably after cold seasons or prior to lambing for ewes.
A single sheep produces from 8kgs to 33 kg of wool a year. The cost of shearing ranges from Sh50 up to Sh200 a sheep according to farmers in Eldoret.
Wool is a natural fibre, ranked as the world's second natural fibre after cotton. It is mostly used for clothing, interior furnishing and industrial purposes. Currently, the global demand for wool is rising on the generally increased demand for natural fibres, driven by consumers' preference for natural products, and has been accelerated by the impact of rising oil prices on synthetic fibre prices.
Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are currently the global leaders in wool exports.
Farmers interested in rearing sheep can get more information from the Ministry of Livestock. For those farmers already in sheep farming there are now more than 52 mills throughout the major urban centres in Kenya, spanning from Nairobi to North Rift, Athi River, Eldoret, Kibwezi, Kisumu, Mombasa, Nanyuki, Nakuru, Thika, and Ruiru, which all buy wool and sheep skin. Some of them include Ngoringori Development Cooperative on 0722476098, Eldoret Hides and Skin Merchants on 0722594162, Mt Kenya Textile Ltd, Alpha Knits Ltd in Nairobi and Afrospin Ltd in Nakuru.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter