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Kilifi farmers cash in on the 'flying gold' of Arabuko forest.

It is early Monday morning and as the sun rises from the East, a dozen farmers stream in at the Gede butterfly house in Malindi, Kilifi county, with bucket loads of butterfly pupae, ready for sorting.

Every farmer goes to the butterfly house centre at Gede with different pupae for counting, sorting, and packaging to be exported to Europe and USA, where they are later released to butterfly houses and greenhouses for display.

We join them at the sorting table as they empty the tiny creatures still glued in pods, and wonder how they gain from them. As every farmer empties her bucket, I keenly follow Mama Tumaini Henry, a butterfly farmer from Ngamani village, who has brought pupae from her group members. She is joined by staff at Kipepeo butterfly project in counting the different packed pupae belonging to her members.

After recording today's collection, Mama Tumaini moves to the next office for payment of previous week's delivery of the pupae. To my surprise, she receives Sh50,000 from the Kipepeo accountant.

I watch her smiling as she counts the money, which is in Sh100 and Sh200 notes. Even though the money belongs to 17 members of her group, the excitement reveals her satisfaction in getting rewarded for breeding butterfly pupae.

Mama Tumaini is among over 7,000 farmers living adjacent to the Arabuko Sokoke Forest who are reaping heavily from Kipepeo Farming Project, which is now turning to be 'the flying gold' of Arabuko Sokoke forest.

Those with no know-how of the unique butterfly farming may think she is a joker, oblivious to the value of the little creatures.

The excited mother tells us Kipepeo project has transformed her life and that of other group members. She uses the income generated from the sale of butterfly pupae for her basic needs.

Mama Tumaini says they supply the pupae every Monday and Friday, and are paid weekly. 'If I get the money, I normally buy food, pay school fees and pay water bills. Before the project started, life was unbearable,' she says.


The Kipepeo project was launched in 1993. It aimed to link conservation and development through the sustainable utilisation of butterfly biodiversity in Arabuko Sokoke Forest to the benefit of surrounding communities.

Since then, Arabuko has become the largest and only one in Kenya and Africa, after several other projects collapsed in Zanzibar, Tanzania and South Africa. There are over 21,000 butterfly species worldwide, 3,800 in Africa, and 871 in Kenya, of which 263 are in Arabuko Sokoke forest. Farmers are therefore encouraged to look for butterfly species with the highest value, in this case the Papilio.

Most farmers who live adjacent to the forest were previously engaged in forest destruction and other unlawful activities that were a threat to the natural ecosystem. But now the project has inspired behavior change.

The Kipepeo project is administered by the East Africa Natural History Society in partnership with the National Museums of Kenya. It has helped to prove that the forest can have new income sources with greater value as intact wild land than as land cleared for agriculture.

Katana Charo, chairman of Mkongani Matsangoni Kipepeo Farmers, says they have been in the business for 24 years. When their group started, they had very little knowledge about butterfly farming. But today, they are experienced and know many types of butterflies.

In previous years it was hard to get enough income, but times have changed. 'Since 2017, we thank God there is a good market, and we have high expectation this year will even be better,' the chairman says, adding that higher demand has enabled them to recruit more farmers, including former destroyers of the forest.

For one to be a member of Kipepeo project, he has to register with Sh200 to get a permit allowing him or her to go to the forest to get female butterflies. Since Charo is now an expert, he says not every butterfly has value.

'We look for valuable species and take them at the pupae stage,' he says. Once the butterflies are caught, they are normally put in a hatching nest to lay eggs that grow to become caterpillar and later pupae, which is then collected to be transported to the Kipepeo project centre.

Due to the demand of Kipepeo and awareness campaign in the areas adjacent to the Arabuko Sokoke forest, most locals now depend on the project for livelihood.

'A hardworking farmer gets between Sh15,000 and Sh20,000 per week,' he says.

Bernard Iha from Mida Majaoni heads a group of seven farmers. Their work is to go inside the forest, hunt for butterflies and confine them in cages to await breeding. It takes three to four weeks for the butterfly eggs to grow to larvae then pupae, which he brings to Kipepeo house for sale.

Iha says they have been trained on how to collect different butterflies and breed them in their homemade cages. He says the skill is simple. 'Any dedicated farmer can follow suit once you establish different species of butterflies, especially those that command higher prices at the market,' Iha says.

The most expensive spices go for Sh70, with the lowest going for Sh25 per pupae. During high season, Iha's group earns Sh30,000-Sh40,000 per week. Last year was the best following the conducive climatic conditions within the Arabuko forest.

The success story can be felt in the villages, which is changing from an ASAL area where farmers relied on unpredictable weather to cultivate crops.

What they earn now is enough to take their children to school, build permanent houses and save for future development.

Iha wants the project sponsors to help them build more cages and expand the market, which will motivate them to produce more and command the export market.


Kipepeo project manager Hussein Aden, a research scientist from the National Museums of Kenya, says once pupae are delivered to the butterfly house in Gede, NMK officials process them and connecting the farmers to clients in Europe and USA.

Those collected on Monday are delivered by Wednesday to the preferred destinations. After delivery, payment is channelled to Kipepeo house according to the consignment, and a payment sheet is prepared according to various groups represented by farmers.

Aden says they pay farmers Sh200,000 on weekly basis for products delivered on Monday and Friday. These gains have led to perception and attitude change within the communities living adjacent to the forest.

The Kipepeo house project also exhibits live butterflies as it targets conservation tourism in the region, where local and international tourists pay some fee to walk round and see different species of butterflies.

Arabuko Sokoke forest in Kilifi county produces 75 per cent of butterfly pupae sales from six of the 263 species found in the forest.

Through the community enterprise project, the farmers get economic benefits and an incentive to conserve Arabuko Sokoke forest.


The sustainability part of the project is where most of the staff working under the project are seconded from NMK, which pays their salaries, operational utilities and scouts on the market, leaving the farmers to focus on production.

Problems faced include seasonality, as results come in a boom or bust production cycle. During the rainy season, there are more pupae than can be marketed, while during the dry season, it is difficult to fulfill orders. There is also stiff competition from high-production countries, such as Philippines, Equador and Costa Rica.

At the butterfly house in Gede, there are different species being bred and monitored on a daily basis. Aden says butterfly farming is delicate due to the short life span of the creatures, which do not live for more than five weeks.

At 21 days, when they reach the caterpillar stage and larvae stage, is when they feed a lot and need a lot of food. Once butterflies are in pupae stage, they do not need food, and that's when it is easier for them to be exported.

Mature butterflies are useful for pollination. Butterflies mate for seven hours, after which the female will have generated enough spermatozoa and will never look for another male again in life.

Even though they are little creatures, clearly, butterflies have a lot of economic potential to farmers.
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Publication:The Star (Nairobi, Kenya)
Date:Jan 22, 2018
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