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“The finer, the better”
– by Sabyr Toigonbaev
Kyrgyz cashmere goats in winter.
You have been supporting cashmere goat farmers for years. What is their basic livelihood, and how is it changing?
The results of research and surveys which we have conducted show that low-income farmers in mountain areas tend to keep goats because they are cheap, reproduce fast and need neither much nor diverse fodder. It is easy to increase the size of a flock, and goats are an important source of financial income. Goats can be sold or bartered at any time. Selling cashmere fibres is a new and additional source of income. From five goats, a poor farmer can get about one kilogramme of cashmere fibres per year and earn the equivalent of almost $ 40. For poor farmers, that is a lot of money. We have been advising farmers for years to comb their goats and sell the fibres. Of course, we have to tell them how to comb properly, how to store the fibre and so on. We teach them.
What is Kyrgyzstan’s role in regard to the world market for textiles?
Kyrgyzstan is a comparatively small producer. According to estimates, Kyrgyzstan produces about 200 to 250 tons of combed cashmere of varying quality. Obviously, the price depends on quality, but there is demand for all quality categories. The buyers are mostly from China, the EU and the USA. Other countries may produce more cashmere, but we are able to sell what we produce. For environmental reasons, moreover, it would not be good to expand cashmere production here, so I think we should focus on improving the quality.
Researchers say that fibres from Kyrgyz goats are good, but could still improve. What is the reason?
Yes, internationally-recognised laboratories have confirmed that our cashmere is as good as the cashmere produced in China or Mongolia. However, both countries are ahead of us in terms of breed selection. We are catching up, however, and we now know which of our goat varieties are the most promising. These goats are adapted to our climate. It gets very cold in winter here. To protect the animals, the fur has to include particularly fine fibres, and our goats are not substantially different in this sense from goats in other cashmere producing countries. However, we have fallen behind our competitors for historical reasons. When Kyrgyzstan still belonged to the Soviet Union, the productivity of our goats was considered poor in comparison with those from Don region. Those goats grow more fibres, but the fibres are of a poorer quality. In those days, quality was not paid much attention, and cashmere production here was neglected.
Where are the fibres processed?
Our country lacks expertise and equipment. Our mountain farmers only do combing and sorting. Processing is not done in Kyrgyzstan, and sewing is not done here either. So far, we haven’t found an investor who would build a cashmere processing factory. Other former Soviet republics do not have industrial-scale spinning facilities either. Yarns are mostly made in China and Europe.
Cashmere production is still rather new in Kyrgyzstan. How and why did it begin?
Well, in the Soviet system, the various republics and allied countries specialised in particular products. Some produced the raw materials, others specialised in manufacturing. Kyrgyzstan was not supposed to be a main centre of cashmere production, and the small amounts that were made here, were shipped to Russia for processing. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the supply chains were interrupted too. However, investors from abroad began to come here to consider business opportunities, and Chinese, European and Turkish companies became interested in our cashmere.
What is it like to keep cashmere goats?
Cashmere goats must be combed in April and May, after which they are sent to mountain pastures with other animals. Some pastoralists pay shepherds to take care of their animals, others do that work themselves. In the lowlands, farmers grow grass that is used as fodder in the winter. This system has been going on for ages. In autumn, goats usually graze close to villages and in winter they are kept in barns. In spring, the goats give birth. In Soviet times, we had huge collective farms as well as state-run farms. Today, the pastoralists are pretty much on their own, though there are some cooperatives and farmers’ groups.
What are the main challenges?
The impacts of climate change are worrying. There is too much snow, winters last too long, and there is less rain in spring. Moreover, animal diseases are a problem. Price volatility is irritating too. Foreign buyers basically dictate prices.
So the goat owners do not get a fair price? Cashmere textiles are normally quite expensive.
Well, they are happy to generate some income, but if you consider the hard work they do in the mountains and the difficulties they face, I don’t think they are getting a fair price. Part of the problem is that they do not know much about fibre quality. They are used to selling all their fibres at one fixed price. Most of the farmers know what kind of valuable goods cashmere is used for, but they do not know what processed fibres are worth. The price for fibres is usually what buyers offer.
So what needs to be done?
It is necessary to improve fibre quality and raise awareness for this issue. State agencies and international organisations are doing good work in this regard. Proper combing makes a difference, and so do good breed selection and appropriate feeding and so on. It also makes sense to cut out the middle men. The cashmere producers should do business directly with the big market players. Both sides will benefit, because the producers will deliver higher quality once they know it will fetch a higher price. To get things started, it would make sense to provide some kind of financial service and assistance to the farmers, many of whom are indebted to middlemen.
You have published an essay warning that pure, high-quality cashmere production is in danger in Kyrgyzstan, as pastoralists have started to crossbreed different goats. What is going on?
The problem is that they are crossbreeding with an eye to get fibres with more weight rather than higher quality, expecting to be paid per kilogramme. But weight is not what matters. The finer and thinner a cashmere fibre is, the better it is. It is preferable to get 150 to 250 grammes of high-quality fibre from a goat than 400 to 600 grammes of low-quality fibre because fine fibres are worth more on the world market. However, many buyers here simply offer one fixed price for all fibres, without paying attention to quality. Their goal is to buy as much fibre as possible, but they are setting the wrong incentives. We need high quality to be rewarding. We need the market to become more diversified and effective.
What is Kyrgyzstan's future in global cashmere production?
Kyrgyzstan will not become a big cashmere player in the world, but it can find its niche in the global economy. Organic certification would help, and so would other certifications, Fair Trade, for instance. We need long-term contracts to supply major companies moreover. The state, international donors and private-sector investors can make things happen by raising awareness for quality issues and promoting better practices.
What do international agencies such as HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation do in support of Kyrgyz farmers?
Several international organisations are helping goat farmers and fibre buyers. Without their support, the business would not really get started. HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation Programme “BAI-ALAI” that is financed by the Government of Switzerland and started its first phase in 2014, is one of them. The development goal of the programme is to reduce poverty in remote Alai and Chon Alai of Kyrgyzstan through increased income and employment – in particular for women and youth. It is involved in cashmere sector development by assisting in such activities as:
- international laboratory testing of Kyrgyz cashmere to assess and certify quality,
- support for veterinarian services, including advice on preventing diseases,
- fostering dialogue between farmers and fibre processors,
- information on proper combing and sorting,
- advice on breeding,
- organising fibre collecting points in villages during the combing season,
- recruitment of fibre collectors and training in regard to quality and prices,
- establishing contact with foreign buyers, linking them to cooperatives and farmers’ groups and
- assessment of certification (organic and fair trade) potential.
Thanks to HELVETAS, negotiations have begun with an investor who is interested in processing fibres in Kyrgyzstan. I hope the results will be good.
Sabyr Toigonbaev is livestock business facilitator for the “Small Business and Income Creation Programme” of HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation in Kyrgyzstan, that is funded by the Government of Switzerland.