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Kyrgyzstan - cashing in on cashmere

Indigenous Kyrgyz goats produce valuable cashmere fibre (Carol Kerven)
Indigenous Kyrgyz goats produce valuable cashmere fibre
Carol Kerven

As spring blossoms across the temperate region in the northern hemisphere, high up in the remote Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, Kyrgyz women comb their indigenous goats to harvest the soft downy undercoat, known as cashmere. The goats may look shabby, but Kyrgyz pastoralists are now learning that their local goats are more valuable than the Russian Don and Angora crossbred goats introduced in previous decades to Soviet collective farms.

Recognised as one of the centres of goat domestication in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is a major genetic resource of cashmere goats. The indigenous goats, known locally as Jaidari, produce a fine warm undercoat in various colours, including black, white, and red, with the finest white fibre fetching the highest prices on international markets. However, Chinese buyers - interested in all grades of cashmere - offer no premium for quality or colour, providing no incentive for Kyrgyz farmers to add value by sorting.

Only a generation ago, some village women would have combed their goats to make yarn for knitting garments. But in recent decades the goats have been shorn and the whole fleece, the rough as well as softer fibres, sold to local traders. However, following recommendations from a research and consultancy firm with experience in pastoral livestock production and marketing, pastoralists are realising that they can attract higher prices, paid by European companies in search of the best quality cashmere.

The potential of cashmere

Livestock are the mainstay for these pastoralists living on the high mountain slopes of southern Kyrgyzstan. During the Soviet period, they would have worked for collective farms producing fine sheep wool but when, in the mid 1990s, the state farms were dissolved the farmers had to create their own livestock farms.

Testing fibre samples has proved that indigenous Kyrgyz goats produce high quality cashmere (Carol Kerven)
Testing fibre samples has proved that indigenous Kyrgyz goats produce high quality cashmere
Carol Kerven

With few resources, local goats were a cheaper option for the poorest farmers than sheep, cattle or yaks. And, limited by the long cold winters and lack of irrigation, crop production has seldom been an option.

To investigate the potential for livestock development in the southern Osh region of Kyrgyzstan, the UK-based Odessa Centre Ltd. was commissioned in 2004 to conduct a study by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) Mountain Societies Development Support Programme (MSDSP), the largest NGO working in the region. Cashmere marketing was identified as a promising commercial activity and recommendations were made to develop training and information packages for farmers and local small-scale traders to increase their margins on sales of cashmere.

Making the most of markets

In 2008, Odessa Centre Ltd. was supported with an AKF grant to trial a cashmere marketing project in five districts across the southern region. Six training workshops were held including MSDSP staff, MSDSP farmer village organisations (VOs), district government agricultural officers, and village-based cashmere traders. Training was provided on cashmere goat identification, combing, sorting the fibre, village bulk marketing, and international standards and demands. Advice was also given on improved nutrition for goats.

The training has been well received by the participants, particularly as they have come to realise the value of their goats. "They always think of the local goats as being bottom of the heap," says Carol Kerven of Odessa Centre Ltd. "When we tell them that their goats produce some of the best cashmere in the world, their eyes become very big and their pride really increases."

To test the fineness of Kyrgyz cashmere, fibre samples from over 1,000 goats in five districts were sent to a commercial laboratory in the US. The results showed that some of the goats, particularly in the remotest regions where the Soviet crossbreds were never introduced, produce very high quality cashmere comparable to the best in China and Mongolia. With combing, goats yield almost 200 grams of cashmere, which in May 2008 provided around US$3 dollars per animal, or up to US$30 per family owning a typical small flock of ten goats.

Hopes and aspirations

During a training workshop, farmers are shown the difference in cashmere fibre quality (Carol Kerven)
During a training workshop, farmers are shown the difference in cashmere fibre quality
Carol Kerven

However, Kerven admits that it is difficult to convince farmers to grade the fibre unless they are linked with a responsible buyer who will pay the difference for the sorted quality. "Frustratingly," she continues, "European buyers often come too late in the season whereas the Chinese buyers are sharper, get their loans together sooner and always arrive early. They pay a set price for the mixed quality but at least the farmers get paid."

Despite the frustrations, Kerven is buoyed up by the potential of cashmere in Kyrgyzstan. Since September 2008, she has been part of a group which has created an elite breeding flock by selecting goats with the best cashmere results from the US lab tests. After several years the best animals can be sold to farmers wanting stud animals to upgrade their flocks. In recent weeks, Kerven reports that the goats have produced kids and the flock size has doubled. "This is an exciting venture for us - it is bringing new life to the region."

Kerven hopes in time that the government, whose current livestock policies focus on merino sheep, will come to realise the real potential of cashmere and provide further support to the mountain pastoralists. "It's a long-term process," she says. "We have to keep accumulating information and conducting small projects until there is a weight of evidence that just cannot be ignored anymore."

Date published: May 2009


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