An adult butterfly feeds on ripe mango at Sharif's farm. Photo: Dominic Kirui

After saving their forest, these Kenyan women now catch and hatch cash through butterflies

A formerly threatened forest in coastal Kenya has become a hub for an unlikely economic venture, but caution is advised.
A formerly threatened forest in coastal Kenya has become a hub for an unlikely economic venture, but caution is advised.

The cool Indian Ocean breeze blows along the beaches of the Watamu in Kenya’s Kilifi county. As it does, it cuts through the unforgiving mid-day sun, saving the day in Mabuwani village, near the historic Gede Ruins, on Kenya’s coastal Kilifi County. 

Mwaka Juma, a 45-year-old mother of four sits under a mango tree with her two granddaughters as she plays with them. Today, she says that her main source of income has been slightly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. She rears butterflies, which she feeds until they hatch, and then she sells the pupa.

Mwaka Juma inside a butterfly house at the Mabuwani village home in Kilifi County. Photo: Dominic Kirui

To do this, Juma goes to the 41,600- hectare Arabuko Sokoke Forest with her fellow women and uses a special net to catch the butterflies. Then she comes and rears them at home using a structure built with a net. When they hatch, the eggs undergo a normal insect metamorphosis to become larvae, which look like caterpillars. The women wait until the larvae turn into pupae. Then they are ready for sale.

The pupae are sold to wealthy individuals mostly in Turkey, the UK, and  America who use the adult butterflies as natural decorations during weddings and other parties and occasions.

Arabuko Sokoke forest is a remnant of Africa’s largest coastal indigenous dry forest, which stretched from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique. The community has protected and saved it from extinction. Before, this forest was in great danger because residents used to destroy it by felling trees for charcoal but now, an economic shift to butterflies has given it new life. 

“Before corona, we used to sell twice every week and would make up to $100 per sale on Mondays and Thursdays on a high season. This has allowed me to take my children through school as it is my only source of income”, Juma says.

The prices depend on the species, with the highest fetching Ksh100 ($1) per pupa for the women, before the Kipepeo Project sets the selling price at Ksh250 ($2.5) for the buyers after marketing and exporting it. The women then get 80% of the pay at buying point, 10% for Christmas festivities and the rest 10% to pay school fees when schools open in January. 

An end to deforestation

Before they started selling butterflies, local women and other members of the community used to fetch firewood in the forest, and also burn charcoal to sell. In the process, they were destroying the forest.

But after the Kipepeo Project (a community-based enterprise that is helping them sell the butterflies) was started in 1993, the women stopped destroying the forest and instead began to protect it, as this started being their source of income. The forest trees flower to attract butterflies which the women catch and hatch for money.

Arabuko Sokoke Forest is home to 263 butterfly species, second only to Kakamega Forest in western Kenya that inhabits 400 butterfly species.

“When men realized that the Project was giving us enough money, we had organized ourselves into groups to be able to bargain a better price for our pupae; they as well started joining and we now work together”, Juma says.

Mwaka Juma demonstrates how to catch a butterfly using a special catching net at her Mabuwani village home in Kilifi County. Photo: Dominic Kirui

Ambassadors of the forest

One such man is Abbas Sharif who lives just across the road from Juma. Sharif has reared butterflies for the past 25 years and says that he won’t regret joining the group as the butterflies put food on his table and pay fees for her children. He now has two daughters studying medicine in Russia and in Norway.     

“We have now become ambassadors of the forest as it gives us money. Before, it was not as thick as it is right now as people around it would destroy by burning charcoal and felling trees for firewood that they would sell for money. Now, we need trees to flower for us to have butterflies,” says the 48-year-old father of eight.

The group is now involved in awareness creation among the community members where they work with the Kenya Wildlife Service as well as the Kenya Forest Service to teach the locals on the importance of trees and discourage illegal felling of trees in the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, while also encouraging them to plant and tender for trees within their homes.

On his farm, Sharif is planting trees and has a nursery where he nurtures different trees and plants them around his piece of land, and as well inside the Arabuko Sokoke Forest.

Abbas Sharif shows his tree nursery at his farm in Mabuwani village, Kilifi County. Photo: Dominic Kirui

Caution needed

Brian Waswala, an environmental science lecturer and wildlife and landscape ecologist, says that care should be taken not to catch and export some of the key species in the ecosystem.

“Butterflies are great bio-indicators of ecosystem health. They not only play vital roles in the environment such as pollination and nutrient recycling but also are food sources (prey) for insectivores within the food chain or food webs. So we need to harvest them in a sustainable manner for ecosystem integrity”, he says.

“As at present, information on sustainable yields of the targeted species is limited, if not lacking. There is a dire need for ecological sustainable yields studies of the targeted species as opposed to maximizing on the economically sustainable yields, which focus on financial returns”, Waswala adds.

And according to Juma, they are sometimes allowed to go into the forest and plant trees. “From time to time, they allow us to go plant trees in the forest so that the butterflies have a good environment to thrive”, she says.