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Africa: All the buzz about edible insects

By Emilie Filou
Posted on Wednesday, 14 April 2021 15:59

A bowl of mopane worms stands on the counter for customers to try at the Insect Experience Restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa, August 23, 2019. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Mango season in Kenya means one thing for InsectiPro: mounds of rotten fruit. And that is a big win for InsectiPro, which farms black soldier flies (BSF), a voracious insect that will feed on almost any type of organic waste. Fully-grown, BSF larvae are basically little protein bars, a highly valuable commodity in the world of animal feed.

“We loved lockdown because there was no fishmeal or soy coming in, so people had to look for a Plan B, and we were Plan B,” says Talash Huijbers, InsectiPro’s founder and CEO. Fishmeal and soymeal are the main source of protein in animal feed, but their negative impact on the environment – fishmeal contributes to overfishing and soy is a leading driver of deforestation – has forced many feed manufacturers to look for alternatives over the past couple of years.

Supply-chain disruptions brought on by the pandemic made this a necessity. “Demand skyrocketed,” says Huijbers, who had to ask customers to give her a month’s notice before she could fulfil orders.

From the outside, InsectiPro’s huge greenhouses do not look very different from those of many farms located in the rolling hills of Limuru in central Kenya. Inside, however, is a different story: millions of adult BSF softly buzzing in netted cages – they are poor fliers – and billions of their small grey larvae fattening up in stacks of black plastic crates. “They’re my babies,” says Huijbers with an impish smile.

Pandemic has been a boon

For a company that only started commercialising its products a year, the pandemic has been a boon. The firm has grabbed the opportunity with both hands. InsectiPro has invested in a new dryer, which will allow it to fulfil all its orders. “Our old dryer could dry 500kg of BSF larvae a day; the new one does 500kg an hour,” says Huijbers. The company is also planning to double its capacity, with a new facility in Kisumu, western Kenya.

InsectiPro is just one of a few rising BSF stars in Kenya. The industry was spearheaded by the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), which established the business case for using BSF in animal feed. ICIPE developed rearing protocols, trialled feed formulations, worked on standards, trained 1,300 farmers and entrepreneurs in BSF farming and has provided support to businesses such as InsectiPro.

Insects are highly nutritious, and they are big business. Mopane worms, for instance, which are in fact the caterpillar of an emperor moth species, are worth $630,000 annually according to informal calculations, not far off the value of Zimbabwe’s beef exports. But wild insect harvests are not regulated and their processing at market stalls leaves much to be desired.

Doctor Chrysantus Tanga, the BSF lead researcher at ICIPE, says the industry has grown in leaps and bounds. “Companies like InsectiPro, Gaea Foods and Sanergy are becoming increasingly sophisticated: they have innovated in how they approach the insects, and they’ve optimised their systems over time,” he says.

But many BSF farmers are smallholders, who produce BSF to feed their own pigs or chickens. Like InsectiPro, they have proved resilient in the face of the pandemic by not being dependent on fishmeal or soy. Their production also adds up. “Kenya is producing around 3,000tn of BSF per year, that’s 4% of the country’s protein needs for animal feed, and it’s replacing fishmeal,” says Tanga.

The focus of his research for the next four years will be to develop the insect value chain. One of the main issues the sector faces is consistency. Feedmillers have stringent requirements when it comes to protein content of the larvae, which can vary significantly depending on what they eat.

Profit in fertilisers than in animal feed

Tanga also wants to unlock the value of insect by-products. Insects, like all livestock, produce manure called frass: a powerful fertiliser. ICIPE ran trials showing that a 50:50 mix of frass and standard chemical NPK fertilisers led to a sixfold increase in yields of garden crops such as tomatoes and green beans.

More importantly, fertilisers are big business. “There is a lot more profit in fertilisers than in animal feed, so if a farmer sells 1tn of insect meal, they will get $1,100. But in the process, they will also produce 40tn of insect frass, which will sell for $12,000. That’s the gain we’re talking about, and that’s where we are trying to bring farmers up to speed,” he says.

Another common by-product of BSF farming is the hard skin shell the insect leaves behind when it pupates. This is currently a waste product but ICIPE has managed to extract chitosan — a high-value product — from it. Chitosan has multiple uses: from soil amendment to probiotic, wound-healing and coating for medical capsules. The market for it is worth $7bn a year and growing: all commercially available chitosan is currently derived from shellfish.

But ‘entopreneurs’ aren’t just interested in rearing insects for animals. Insects are a popular delicacy in many parts of the continent. While most insects that people eat are harvested in the wild, some companies are now farming them.

Legendary Foods in Ghana farms palm weevils: larvae commonly eaten in West and Central Africa, basically anywhere where there are oil palms. They used to be harvested once palms were felled and left to ferment, but their popularity led Legendary Foods to try to farm them.

Palm weevils, like BSF, can be raised in crates or ‘bins’. Such vertical farming systems mean insects require much less land than traditional livestock; they don’t need much water either and can be raised on by-products from agriculture or from the food industry. This makes them highly sustainable alternatives to traditional protein sources such as meat and fish, and particularly valuable in the context of food security.

Shobhita Soor, Legendary Foods’ founder and CEO, says customers are often surprised by the quantities they sell because wild harvesting does not yield such large volumes. For the uninitiated, Soor says palm weevil larvae have “the texture of a sausage and the taste of shrimp”.

Traditional food at risk of disappearing

As for their looks, they are fat white grubs, about the size of a thumb. It was a traditional food at risk of disappearing. “A common reaction from older customers is: ‘Oh wow, I haven’t seen palm weevil larvae since I was a child!’ or ‘I haven’t eaten this since I left the village!’” says Soor.

Legendary Foods sells the larvae fresh or frozen, which consumers can use as a direct substitute to meat or fish in stews, soups, rice dishes or stir fries. The company also sells products containing palm weevil larvae that act as ‘gateway products’ to younger customers. “We have a biscuit that is 15% larvae, and a condiment called Shito [a ubiquitous Ghanaian pepper sauce]. Shito traditionally contains dried shrimp or fish, which we have substituted for palm weevil larvae. It’s been a great marketing tool,” says Soor.

The company is now in the process of raising a round of equity to build a full-scale commercial facility in Greater Accra and move out of its research premises in Kumasi. Soor says this will allow them to tap into Accra’s food processing ecosystem and export more easily.

“Our mission is to produce the most cost effective, resource efficient, nutritious, locally produced animal protein, and our target market is the region [Western and Central Africa], not just Ghana,” she says. “Protein sovereignty is at the core of what we do.”

In Southern and Central Africa, researchers in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) recently published two insect cookbooks with the support of the AgriFoSe2030 (Agriculture for Food Security) programme, funded by Swedish development agency Sida.

Insects are highly nutritious, and they are big business. Mopane worms of instance, which are in fact the caterpillar of an emperor moth species, are worth $630,000 annually according to informal calculations, not far off the value of Zimbabwe’s beef exports. But wild insect harvests are not regulated and their processing at market stalls leaves much to be desired.

AgriFoSe2030 provided training to various stakeholders such as collectors, traders and market officials. In the DRC, it opened a restaurant and in Zimbabwe, a model market facility. The cookbooks were designed to formalise the demand side of the value chain.

“We thought we’d able to reach new consumers,” says doctor Robert Musundire, the lead researcher at Chinhoyi University of Technology in Zimbabwe. “Some people aren’t keen on eating whole insects, so we thought: ‘What if we blend them into a powder and use it an ingredient?’”

Caught the attention of a cookery show

The Zimbabwean cookbook titled Secrets of African Edible Insect Cookery, features recipes such as mopane worm samosas, stink bug ginger nuggets and chafer beetle fritters. For its part, the Congolese book Les Délices de Mikese gives pride of place to palm weevil larvae but also features red ants and caterpillars.

The Zimbabwean book has proved hugely popular. “People were really impressed at tasting events: they couldn’t believe we could transform insects into these wonderful dishes,” says Musundire. They even caught the attention of popular cookery show The Menu on Zimbabwe’s national broadcaster ZBC. They plan to do a mini-series on edible insects based on the book. The first episode is due to air in April/May 2021.

Not all insect species are suitable to domesticating and farming, and the barrier to entry can be high because of the skills required and the upfront costs for a commercial farm. But Tanga is sanguine about the sector’s prospects. “When we started working on BSF in 2014, we didn’t even know where to get insects from. Insects were even considered a contaminant in animal feed! We have come such a long way and there is real momentum now.”

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