Silk occupies a prime position in our country’s sartorial profile. The Indian wardrobe is rarely complete without silk garments, especially saris, that function like a cultural calling card for the country’s weaving communities. Places like Mysore, Kanchipuram, Tirubhuvanam, Varanasi, Bhagalpur and Chanderi are famous for their silks even among those who may have not visited them.
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India is the only country that produces all the five known commercial silks — mulberry, tropical tussar, oak tussar, eri and the distinctive gold-tinted muga. Of these, mulberry silk is the most widely produced, with 25,345 metric tonnes produced in 2018-19.
Switching to science
Despite being the world’s biggest consumer of silk and its second-largest producer, India does not fare too well on the sericulture scene. Though silk production started in the 15th Century in the country, it still functions as a cottage industry, and therefore suffers from lack of organisation. Sericulture employs approximately 9.18 million persons in rural and semi-urban areas in India, according to Central Silk Board estimates.
And ‘moriculture’ (a term for the cultivation of mulberry for the purpose of rearing silkworms), is just the first step in this silken journey that has traditionally been more about subjective perceptions than scientific calculations. Surprisingly, there has been little change in the way silk has been produced for over centuries. The domesticated Bombyx mori moth (silkworm) has a truncated life span, because the cocoons are harvested while still in a pupa stage. A process called ‘stifling’ (involving boiling, baking or steaming the cocoons) kills the pupa within while helping human workers to locate the end of the thread to be unwound — mechanically or manually. Clearly, this dark side of the silk industry has raised ethical questions in recent times, and many more moth-friendly alternatives such as ‘wild silk’ and ‘Ahimsa silk’ have been developed, which allow the silkworm to complete its life cycle.
“The silk supply chain always had a problem of not knowing exactly what they are producing in terms of quality. Silk [mulberry] farmers cannot understand the price fluctuations for their cocoons, while reelers who function like cartels, using arbitrary testing methods, can be biased against a product from certain regions. We are trying to change this by using quality as the benchmark for not just pricing, but also production,” says Mayank Tiwari, founder and CEO of the silk agritech startup ReshaMandi, based in Bengaluru.
Tiwari co-founded ReshaMandi with Saurabh Agarwal and Utkarsh Apoorva in April last year to digitise sericulture production from farming, thread processing (reeler units) to fabric weavers and business organisations with platforms based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT).
Till date, the startup has worked with 7,500 mulberry farmers, 560 reeling plants and 3,840 weaving units.
Letting quality speak
The startup initially helped to solve the logistics problems faced by sericulture farmers and reelers due to the lockdown’s transport restrictions.
- ReshaMandi’s joint venture with Bengaluru-based agritech company Fasal in Karnataka aims to take the guesswork out of mulberry cultivation specifically to reduce water wastage, while increasing the leaf yield significantly.
- For this, a cumulative extent of six acres of farms managed by ReshaMandi in Sarjapura, Hubbali, Anekel Taluk and Bengaluru were selected with a wide range of soil textures such as sandy loam, loam, and silt loam.
- The age of the plant varied from 2-10 years. The high-yield V-1 variety of mulberry was selected for the Karnataka trials in keeping with recommendations of the Central Sericultural Research and Training Institute (CSTRI) for irrigated conditions in the State.
- Fasal Systems measured and reported on three crop cycles. It was observed that when irrigation was controlled significantly both in frequency and application, the leaf moisture in both test and control plots remained similar.
- Based on the predictive intelligence provided by Fasal, ReshaMandi’s farms were able to witness a 30-50% increase in biomass and area of mulberry leaves harvested.
Over the past year, its app-based services have grown to include cocoon sourcing and grading, farmer advisories on mulberry cultivation, disease detection in chawki (young silkworms) and fair price marketing.
It has also tied up with Bengaluru-based agritech startup Fasal, in an innovative precision farming project that aims to save water resources while increasing the mulberry leaf yield.
To speed up the process, ReshaMandi ensures that cocoon grading results are available within a day. By removing the geographical details, the startup tags the cocoon lots by their tested quality scores, which guarantees a fair price.
“ReshaMandi’s certificate has become a quality handle for farmers and reelers; this is presented to the weavers as well. If we know the denier (a unit of measure for the linear mass density of fibres, equal to the weight in grams of 9,000 metres of the yarn) ( of the silk, we can calculate the exact grammage of the sari that can be woven with it,” says Tiwari.
Farming meets IoT
At the farming level, ReshaMandi offers two IoT devices, one to monitor the soil’s carbon and moisture content, and the other to maintain ideal air quality, temperature and humidity levels in the rearing shed. While the app is free to use, the devices are available on monthly subscription.
The devices are connected with an app installed on a farmer’s smartphone (for Android 5.0 and up). The in-house developed app is available on Google Play Store as ‘ReshaMandi, The New Silk Route’. Sensors installed in the field and rearing sheds enable ReshaMandi to send textual advice through the phone, with follow-up calls if required.
Farmer D Raghu from Ittanguru village in Sarjapur, Karnataka, has been growing mulberry on his three-acre plot for a decade. Since signing up for ReshaMandi eight months ago, his earnings have gone up by at least 30% .. “I didn’t know how to irrigate the mulberry crops before, so sometimes it used to be too much. The ReshaMandi device has helped me to reduce the water used for irrigation; now I can share my surplus with other farms in the vicinity,” he says.
Once Raghu’s cocoons are ready, ReshaMandi undertakes the marketing. Earlier, with 200 DFL (disease-free laying) chawki , Raghu could expect to get around 200 kilograms of silk; with ReshaMandi’s farming advisory, this has risen to 230-235 kilograms this year, he says.
Importance of water
“Mulberry leaf quality is the most important part of sericulture,” says Karan Gowda, an agronomist who works with ReshaMandi.
He elaborates, “If the leaves are too moist (as a result of overwatering), the silkworms can bloat and die. If they are too dry, the silkworm can be prematurely destroyed inside the cocoon. The effect of imperfect cocoon silk can be seen right up to the end product (the threads tend to break more easily), which is why irrigation must be precisely measured. The IoT device helps to regulate water levels according to the farm’s soil conditions. We also advise farmers to use organic fertilisers to avoid pests and diseases in mulberry cultivation.”
Silk has many uses beyond just luxurious garments, says ReshaMandi founder Tiwari. “Keratin extracted from silk cocoons can be used to make medical bandages. Silk-based coatings can be used in food packaging, for which we have collaborated with Mori, a Boston, Massachusetts-based technology company that uses silk protein to create a protective layer that slows down three key mechanisms that cause food to spoil. The waste material of silkworms can also be used in the fisheries industry as fodder in fisheries,” he says.
While spreading out across silk-producing clusters in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, ReshaMandi has reached out to weavers in Benares, Maheshwari, Chanderi, Salem and Dharmavaram this year. “I hope that retailers in India start understanding the need to become digital. With more people staying in during the pandemic, silk retailers have to learn how to adapt and cater to this new customer base,” says Tiwari.