Feature: Insects, solution to Africa’s malnutrition and food problems

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African food insects

Grilled or fried insects like soldier termites, flying termites, mopane worms and edible stinkbugs, seasoned with salt are a common sight at entrances to many drinking spots and street food markets around Africa.

Not only are these crunchy delicacies enjoyed in Africa, but also in many other parts of the world.

While the eating of insects is almost as old as humanity in Africa, integrating entomology, the scientific study of insects, with Africa’s rich indigenous knowledge systems in their harvesting and preparation is now gaining momentum on the continent.

Scientists believe that insects may be the panacea to Africa’s debilitating food shortages and malnutrition problems.

Chinhoyi University of Technology (CUT), one of the leading insect research centres in Africa, has analysed more than 40 species of insects consumed in Zimbabwe and realised that most insects have a protein content that ranges above 30%.

These insects also have a high fat content that is translated into energy and very necessary especially for Africa’s rural populations that require a lot of energy due to their heavy manual work.

The soldier termite, for instance, has high levels of nutrients and minerals needed to fight the scourge of malnutrition in Africa, namely protein, zinc and iron. Better yet, these insects become readily available in seasons where food stocks are also at their lowest.

A March 2022 UN Habitat and United Nation World Food Programme report shows the growing vulnerabilities, malnutrition and food insecurity among Africa’s urban populations which constitute 60% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population.

An estimated 68,1 urbanites in Sub-Saharan Africa were at risk of acute food insecurity in 2020. This includes 22 million in Central Africa, 16 million in West Africa, 15,7 million in East Africa and 14,4 million in southern Africa.

A 2020 report from three United Nations agencies indicated that more than a third (282 million) of all undernourished people in the world, live in Africa.

Popularity of edible insects in Africa

However, insects are an easily accessible solution to Africa’s food and malnutrition problems. Granted, some insects like mopane worms are very popular in the southern African region.

Insects are widely consumed in Africa.

A 2021 survey by the Zimbabwe Forestry Commission shows that 1 170 tonnes of mopane worms are harvested annually translating to a net income of US$3,9 million.

In South Africa, the sale of mopane worms generates no less than US$39 million annually.

A study by KwaZulu Natal University in 2021 of insect consumption patterns in Limpopo and KwaZulu Natal provinces of South Africa showed that of the eight species studied, locals preferred mopane worms and termites as
food.

Patience Sibanda, an insect merchandiser based in Gweru, said mopane worms were her fastest moving wares.

“Mopane worms are fast moving. It is one of the things that make me a lot of money. On a good day, I sell US$20 worth of mopane worms, which is very good business,” she said.

Research has, however, shown that the majority of these consumed insects across Africa are wild harvested and sustainability becomes an issue, hence increased calls to farm these “small livestock’’.

Forestry Commission spokesperson Violet Makoto said the commission was promoting sustainable harvesting of mopane worms so that mopane woodlands are preserved.

“The Forestry Commission has ongoing community-based natural resource management and woodland management programmes that include training of communities, restoration of degraded lands, soil conservation, business development skills training and access controls,” she said.

Farming of these insects is the way to go in preserving this African delicacy and a source of protein whose stocks may deplete due to increased unsustainable harvesting.

Insect farming in Africa
Blessing Mutedzi, runs a mopane worms farm at his rural plot in the rural area of Marange in Manicaland province. The mopane worm is a large caterpillar (Gonimbrasia belina), a species of moth which is native to the warmer parts of southern Africa.

His farm has many mopane and jackal berry trees, some of mopane worm’s favourites.

“In a domesticated system, jackal berry trees provide food to mopane worms in seasons where mopane trees shed off their leaves,” he adds.

Mutedzi harvested wild mopane worms on the plot since he was a child, before embarking on domestication and commercialising them. He has managed to run this business over the years since 2014 when he started.

“It only takes 30 days from hatching until maturity, and when they are ready, they climb down the tree and we just pick them. There is no need to cut down the tree. We have built plastic enclosures around the trees so that we can harvest them easily and this also prevents other creatures from eating them.”

He harvests an average of 20 kilogrammes of mopane worms per month, but this year the yield was not as he expected, as climate change is also having an effect on the production of insects.

“Mopane worms require 30-35 degree Celsius, but this year, we received temperatures beyond that and our mopane worms died because of heat stress,” said Mutedzi.

Mutedzi is one of the insect farmers who have benefited from the insect farming training at Chinhoyi University of Technology.

Three thousand kilometres away, in Namthoe village, Kasagama Location Kisumu County in Kenya, 55-year-old Charles Odira rears crickets on his three-acre farm and is also into value addition.

“I have six cricket units and each is estimated to have 30 000 crickets. On the other hand, I have 55 crates, each holding at least 1 500 crickets,” explains Odira.

After harvesting, he said, one can then choose how to process them for food depending on preference.

It is a lucrative business for Odira who sells dried crickets for US$25 per kg. Despite this high price, the demand for his products always exceeds supply.

“On average we produce up to 40kg of dried crickets in a month and most of the time we have bookings even before the insects are harvested,” he explains.

Odira also mills crickets into a powder used as a protein ingredient for baking and porridge.

In a month his farm can produce up to 20kg of powder, valued at US$26 per kg. “Besides selling this powder, we also use it to produce our own baking products such as cricket-based biscuits, muffins, cakes and bread.”

Potential of insects in Africa

According to Charles Ng’ong’a, a research scientist at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology JOOUST in Kenya, cricket farming for food has been gaining interest in the area and beyond, for various reasons.

Asaah Ndambi, a senior international animal production specialist, animal science group at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands and an adjunct lecturer at the University of Nairobi, said, insects often have higher protein content than fish and livestock.

Ndambi said. “They also require less water and less land as compared to other plant and animal sources of protein. They could also be fed on various forms of organic waste which are a lot cheaper than animal feeds.”

Food safety concerns
But even with that, scientists said the research on a significant number of insects needed to be done before they are confirmed to be safe for consumption.

“At the threat of capture, insects like all wild creatures release toxins, which are potentially harmful. Therefore, there is a need to follow proper procedures in the collection, preparation and storage,” advises Chrysantus Tanga, a research scientist at insects for food, feed and other uses (INSEFF) programme at The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology ICIPE, in Nairobi.

On the continent, scientists are already developing manuals to avert food safety concerns in the insect value chain.

They are developing the age-old African traditions such as the blending of insects with traditional grains to solve malnutrition issues such as kwashiorkor, diarrhoea among other ailments.

“It all boils down to how they are collected prepared and consumed. That is why we have developed a recipe book. Before the recipe book there is a book that I authored based on traditional methods and philosophies, on how insect should be harvested and prepared based on traditional methods and philosophies,” said Chinhoyi University of Technology and Zimbabwe’s leading insect researcher, professor Robert Musundire.

Scientists said insects needed to be prepared in a specific way, lest some of the nutrients are lost in the cooking.

“While different species of insects have different nutrient levels. We have realised through research that the processing of insects may destroy the bio-accessibility of nutrients. If they are processed in the right way, their nutrient profiles are very high,” said Faith Manditsera, a Zimbabwean academic who dedicated her whole PhD research on analysing nutrient profiles of edible insects.

Marondera University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology and Chinhoyi University have partnered with Abertay University and University of Sheffield, in the United Kingdom, in developing a mopane worm-based porridge for children between the ages of seven and 11.

Prototypes of the porridge have already been prepared and scientists are now working of human efficacy trials before the porridge is introduced to the children in a school feeding programme later this year.

“The formulation of the mopane worm-based porridge is such that it meets the minimum daily nutrition requirements of a child between these age brackets, such as protein, zinc, iron and added to finger millet, pearl millet as starch and minerals sources,” says Lesley Macheka, a Marondera University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology insect researcher.

According to him, abundant research has been done to show the high protein levels of mopane worms, but there is still a gap that will be filled by the next level of the research team to see if the human body can absorb these nutrients.

Evidence-based research and human efficacy trials should be done in a few months and the research teams look to produce over a tonne of this porridge later this year to run a school feeding programme in the country.

“This project is set to improve nutrition outcomes not only in Zimbabwe but the region, because of the use of readily available traditional grains as starch sources and insects and protein sources in the upcoming insect-based porridge,” Macheka adds.

Not yet fully embraced
But even with the glaring advantages, there is still more to be done for insects to be fully accepted as a major source of protein for human consumption.

Uptake of insects on the continent has been on a downward trend with urbanisation and adoption of Western cuisines.

“There is limited culture on inclusion of insects in human diets, the market is not guaranteed. For this to be achieved, there has to be a shift on the African societal mindset on insect for food,” explains Ndambi.

Studies into the agricultural policies of central and southern Africa show that there are no explicit regulations or policy frameworks to promote sustainable harvesting, safe processing and fair-trading practices in the insect value chain.

“I blame us, the scientists. I think we are not doing enough. We should go beyond just researching to publish, but research to influence policy changes. We need all handson deck to increase publicity and engage parliamentarians and policymakers in coming up with guiding policies in the insect value chain,” said Macheka.

Way forward

A collaborative effort by gastronomists and insect researchers in Zimbabwe led to the production of the book Secrets of African Edible Insect Cookery to help Africa’s young generations to prepare and consume edible insects. The book showcases insects as ingredients in recipes, such as “mopane worm samosas”, and “chafer beetle cupcakes”.

“We realised that the way insects are prepared matters a lot in how they are accepted and the nutrition they eventually offer after consumption, that is why we developed this recipe book that shows how to prepare these insects,” said Musundire, one of the cookbook authors.

The cookbook was borne out of the need to document the indigenous knowledge in the preparation of insects that was slowly dying away with older generations.

It is part of the broader, ongoing AgriFoSe 2030 programme, funded by the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (Sida), with the aim being to enhance food security in rural and urban areas of southern Africa, as well as boost incomes of small-scale rural farmers by increasing uptake of edible insects, produced and processed through sustainable methods.

Also, Boma, a hotel in Zimbabwe, awards certificates to all tourists that eat their signature mopane worm dish. This is a way of encouraging people to embrace these insects as food.

“Mopane worm delicacy has its own station in the centre of the Boma restaurant and we go through more than 250 certificates each month,” said Marianne Betts, the hotel’s spokesperson.

In Kenya, various universities and research institutions have special departments dedicated to studying insects in an effort to transform food systems.

These insects are also popular in other East African countries such as Uganda, but as in Kenya, they are usually characterised by minimal value addition.

But this could be changing across the continent, as there have been some efforts to incorporate insects into the food culture. In Kenya, there is government support including the approved standard by the Kenya Bureau of Standards guiding the production of insect-related products.

Rwanda has already launched standards for the edible insect sector following the establishment of the country’s first commercial insect-based animal feed plant.

With scientific and technical support from Icipe, Rwanda joins other East African countries in the quest to use insects to reshape food systems into a sustainable circular economy.

And as the continent steers towards the attainment of its goals for development set out by the Africa Union, one thing for sure is that the goal of healthy and well-nourished citizens has to be realised.

This means that in this, the issue of malnutrition, undernutrition and other food deficiencies have to be dealt with. The question is just how much is insect farming going to contribute towards this?

  • This work was supported by a Global Nutrition and Food Security Reporting Fellowship from the International Center for Journalists and the Eleanor Crook Foundation