Farming flies and cockroaches to ensure food security? Read on for some of the most fascinating insights on alternative agriculture in Africa.
BY PAULA SLIER AND SASHA STAR
ANY CHILD GROWING UP IN THE 90S — OR their parents, for that matter — will likely recall the scene from The Lion King where Timon and Pumbaa introduce a young Simba to their staple diet.
“This looks like a good place to rustle up some grub,” says the meerkat as he lifts up a log to expose a plethora of creepy crawlies underneath. “These are rare delicacies,” he tells the lion
cub. Their warthog friend slurps up a maggot before declaring, “Slimy, yet satisfying.”
The look of disgust on Simba’s face mimics those of many people when the idea of eating insects is mentioned. Yet, consuming bugs is something which has been done in Africa for centuries.
“Africa has more than 552 species of insects which are edible. They have been consumed in more than 45 countries across the continent by close to 300 million people, so it’s a culture that we have,” confirms Dr Chrysantus Tanga who heads the Insects for Food, Feed and Other Uses (INSEFF) Programme at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE).
That last number is an important one. According to the United Nations, the population of Africa is anticipated to grow to around 2.53 billion people by the year 2050, leading to a significant increase in the demand for food. It is here that ICIPE’s program comes in.
“About 29% of the population is chronically undernourished,” Tanga explains. “And so if we are able to promote insects as a food source, that will go a long way to increase food production and ensure food security.”
Dr Amy Franklin understands this undernourishment first-hand. “My husband and I adopted two children from the Congo,” says the Colorado native. “We saw the conditions that these kids are raised in and how poor their nutrition is. It was this experience with my own kids that moved me to do something for other children in the country.”
The result was the non-profit organization, Farms for Orphans, which in 2017 began farming African palm weevil larvae to provide a healthy, sustainable protein for children.
“I never in a million years thought that I’d be farming insects in the Congo! Protein malnutrition and iron- deficiency anaemia are huge problems in this population and I came to realize that most of the orphanages, especially in Kinshasa, have no land or access to land, meaning there’s nowhere for them to grow crops or to raise even small livestock.”
The beauty of farming bugs is that barely any space is required.
“I keep them in a small room in special crates for keeping small insects,” says Daniel Rwehura, who has become known as the Cockroach King in Tanzania. The 30-year-old started out as a poultry farmer, but a shortage of animal feed for his chickens led him down a different path.
“I began searching for alternative sources of animal feed and discovered that cockroaches are very nutritious. When I started farming cockroaches, the goal was to find a solution for animal feed, but during the process I found that some customers request them for other uses, like human food.”
According to Tanga, insects are the real deal when it comes to ticking off one’s vitamin intake. “The protein level of insects, in most cases, ranges between 38% and 78%, making them superior to plant-based protein sources and comparable to animal-based protein sources. In some instances, they are even superior. Insects are also extremely rich in minerals like iron, zinc, and calcium.”
Studies have shown that locusts, grasshoppers, and caterpillars are high in sterols which have anti-inflammatory and cancer- fighting properties, aid in lowering cholesterol, and improve the production of Vitamin D. Crickets possess 2%-3% more folic acid than plant and animal-based sources, making them beneficial for children and pregnant women; and a variety of insects are rich in amino acids and antioxidants. Insect oils also contain all three types of Omega-3 fatty acids, compared to sesame and olive oil which only include one.
“With just a handful of crickets, you get your iron, zinc, and protein intake for the day. They are like nutrition powerhouses — you can do so much with so little,” says Talash Huijbers who founded InsectiPro in Kenya. The organization farms crickets for food and black soldier flies for feed, with 3 million crickets and around 500,000 flies produced each day on their 1.2 hectares of land.
In addition to reproducing so rapidly, insects involve far lower maintenance than farming animals. “Because cockroaches feed on residuals like fruit and vegetable peels, I don’t need a budget for feed. I also don’t need to buy medication for them, so it is easy and affordable to farm them.”
Insects may be the hot new item on the menu, but farming them is also facilitating the production of other protein sources.
“When farmers see a difference in the growth of their animals, they come back to buy more,” notes Huijbers. “Pigs grow faster, chickens are laying eggs for a bit longer and fish are growing a bit faster because the amino acid profile of black soldier flies is very complementary to animal growth.”
“The recycling of 200 million tonnes of organic waste is able to produce 16 million tonnes of insect-based animal feed annually. In turn, this provides five to 14% of the protein which is required to farm pigs, fish, and chicken as food within the continent,” Tanga further explains.
“What I think we’re going to see in the next few years is a shift with insect producers from Europe coming to Africa,” Huijbers believes. “We have the land, we have good climate to grow insects. Labor makes sense. It can be done almost anywhere. So I think as a continent, we can gain a lot from insect production.”
“Africa has plenty of resources,” agrees Rwehula. “We have a habit as Africans of undermining our resources and rather valuing those brought out by foreigners. We need to do research on our resources and utilize them to make improvements to grow our economy.”
Although it may appear as though farming creepy crawlies is simple enough for it to practically do itself, the practice does involve its difficulties.
“One of the biggest challenges was that the orphanages kept eating everything that we gave them to start their farms,” Franklin recalls. “We tried several times. We kept replenishing the larvae and they just kept eating them. I mean, they get no protein and here we were bringing them kilograms of larvae and telling them that they had to leave them in a container and feed them so they would pupate and make beetles which would make more larvae… It just got to the point where we couldn’t give them anymore to farm.”
Palm weevil larvae, known as mpose in Congo, is considered a delicacy. One kilogram of the wriggly creatures can easily sell for over $20. “They taste like little breakfast sausages,” Franklin quips.
Dr Leah Bessa focused both her Masters and PhD on insects as an alternative for human consumption which inspired her to found Gourmet Grubb. The company’s signature product was EntoMilk (from the word “entomophagy”, meaning the practice of eating insects) which was made from black soldier fly larvae and then used to create artisanal ice cream.
For a short while, the business also had a pop-up restaurant in Cape Town where bugs were the main ingredient on the menu. Think tagliatelle made from insect flour and served with crispy larvae crumbs, and chickpea and black soldier fly larvae croquettes served with a mopane worm dip.
“The idea was really to bring insects to people in a gourmet cuisine, to sort of change the perception. We had people flying in from different parts of the country to try the food, and some customers did not even realize it included insects.”
Bessa believes that not serving the bugs in standard form helped to normalize the eating experience – an opinion which Huijbers shares. “We realized at InsectiPro that a whole insect can be pretty scary
to eat. But as a powder, it’s a lot more acceptable. We are now doing a lot of tasting sessions and we’re working with different chefs just to get crickets to be a bit more normal.”
Huijbers claims that crickets have a nutty taste but have the ability to adapt.
“Depending what you feed them, they can taste like that. So if we feed them garlic, they’ll taste kind of garlicky. We also have a caramel cinnamon flavour and a barbecue flavour that we will be selling as snack packs. My COO is not very big on the crickets, she doesn’t like the flavor profile, so when she ate them happily, we knew we would be okay.”
Although the health benefits and creativity cannot be denied, it still takes a mental adjustment to be alright with downing a gogga.
To those who are apprehensive, Huijbers says, “Just try one.” According to Timon, it tastes just like chicken.