Edible insects are an important part of African cultural heritage – in folklore, diets and medicine. Many different species of insect are eaten across the African continent. In Zimbabwe alone more than 40 different species are consumed. Some of the more commonly known are the mopane worm, crickets, stink bugs and termites.
But the potential of edible insects as a solution for food security in sub-Saharan Africa has so far received little attention and is under exploited.
“This situation denies African economies potential revenues, at a time when many countries in the world are looking for fresh revenue streams for funding their economic growth agenda,” said Professor D.J. Simbi, Vice Chancellor of Chinhoyi University of Technology adding that, “We must therefore use all available publicity platforms to promote the agenda on insects for food.”
Others made more direct calls to action. Professor Arnold van Huis from Wageningen University said, “It is the right time for the world to stop eating hamburger and start eating bug burger”.
What’s the potential?
Why is there currently such interest in promoting the eating of insects? Well, there is plenty of evidence that insects are super foods with high fat, protein, vitamin, fibre and mineral levels. What is less known is insects’ potential to counter food waste.
Food waste is an excellent feed for many farmed insects, and initiatives that use insects to process food waste, and which use the insects as high value agricultural products, are already up and running (see here, here and here).
Farming insects on a larger scale also provides opportunities for agricultural intensification, as well as reforestation of specific tree species, since many insects nest and feed on trees.
“The vision of affordable, edible insect farming is going to be a massive challenge, but proves to be a more sustainable form of agriculture compared to other agricultural approaches, competing with factors such as rapid urbanizing conditions within Africa,” said keynote speaker Jeff Tomberlin, AgriLife Research Fellow and Director, TAMU Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program, Texas A&M University.
Challenges in the insects for food sector
Although the potential for insects for food and feed is real and close at hand, the overriding view at the conference was that it won’t be easy to scale up production from traditional to commercial levels.
There will also be issues around competing uses for land and resources, and, if wild harvesting of insects were to increase, it could lead to species going extinct.
A keynote speaker, Marianne Nasha Mulangala, President of Association des Femmes D’Affaires du Congo (AFAC) from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said that industrialization is affecting farmers negatively.
“Just like in many other African countries, insect rearing is practiced in Zimbabwe as a local occupation but is affected by the modernizing models of agriculture which involve use of strong pesticides.”
Participants at the conference also pointed to a lack of policy and regulatory frameworks linked to food safety.
Farmers looking to invest in insect farming are not getting the support they need, and traders are bound to sell insects in market environments that are not ideal for them. There is also a lack of intellectual property rights regimes for edible insects.
Who needs to act and how?
Panelists answered questions on innovation and partnerships with the private sector, both vital to get the sector growing.
The conference arrived at a consensus that was succinctly summarized by Dorte Verner, Lead Economist for Africa at the World Bank’s Food and Agriculture Global Practice.
“It is the right time for Africa to look at alternative, new and innovative ways of addressing food security, and there is no way to provide affordable food options to people without partnership with the private sector and transboundary collaborations,” said Dorte.
Another key factor is capacity building, both in terms of human capital and skills but also infrastructure for the insect sector.
The conference participants concluded that academia can help foster innovation and enterprise, including building business cases and foresight scenarios.
It was agreed that political decision-makers also need to step up. “They need to commission and approve policy frameworks that take into consideration the uniqueness of this emerging industry,” said Professor Monica Ayieko of Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology, Kenya.
Other points made included the need for strong community-led platforms that promote development and create incentives. Such platforms can catalyse innovation and investment in the edible insects’ industry at national, regional and international levels.
And it was highlighted that the people on the ground – the farmers, food and feed processers, traders and marketers – have an amazing opportunity to invest and create inroads to growing niche markets and contribute to the value chain of edible insects. Participants pointed out that these practitioners can and must proactively contribute to capacity development and resourcing activities to spur progress in the edible insects’ value chain. They need to help to secure sustainable use of insect resources, as well as preserve and promote knowledge on edible insects.
Led by Africans, for Africa
The conference ended with calls for African scientists to be brave enough to move the edible insects agenda forward. Dr Ruth Kahuthia, Senior Lecturer and Entomologist at Kenyatta University, emphasized that Africa should not be left behind in tapping the potential of edible insects for food security. But she said that, to succeed, “the edible insects business in Africa should be led by Africans, for Africa”.
The AgriFoSe2030 Programme contributes to sustainable intensification of agriculture for increased food production on existing agricultural land. The aim is to do so by transforming practices toward more efficient use of human, financial and natural resources.
Join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #EdibleInsectsAfrica.
Earlier this month, @_SLU, @ChinhoyiCUT and #AgriFose2030 held the first #EdibleInsectsAfrica Conference. Research shows insects are highly nutritious and gentle on the environment. Listen to some of the key takeaways in this video. #InsectsAsFood https://t.co/GvgeP2SDPQ
— SEI Research (@SEIresearch) September 2, 2019