The boarding of Uganda Airlines flight 446 from Entebbe to Dubai was momentarily disrupted at the end of last year when two of the passengers started hawking bush crickets in the aisles.
Their fellow travellers couldn’t believe their luck: nsenene are a prized delicacy in Uganda, but despite November usually being peak season for the insects, there had been hardly any around.
The video from the plane went viral; there were grumblings about security breaches, but Uganda Airlines seemed sympathetic and spotted an opportunity to turn the crisis into an opportunity. “We understand that [nsenene] was not in plenty this season, hence the excitement. We are considering adding nsenene to our menu for regional and international flights on request,” it said in a statement.
Nsenene are just one of 2,100 known edible insect species, a quarter of which are consumed in Africa. Most are highly prized – often costing more than beef or chicken by weight – and most are harvested from the wild.
Catching them is often difficult, they are seasonal and can be unavailable when most needed, said Dorte Verner, lead agriculture economist at the World Bank’s food and agriculture global practice. They can also be over-harvested or contaminated with pesticides.
However, with rising food insecurity, safeguarding this nutritious source of protein has become critical. “In 2021, 21% of people in countries affected by fragility, conflict and violence did not have access to nutritious food,” said Verner. “Also, food production per capita has been falling since 2014.”
Farming the insects is one solution. A recent report, published by Verner and World Bank colleagues, on the potential of hydroponics and insect farming in Africa, found 849 farms in 10 of the 13 countries they surveyed. While still in its infancy – most farms were set up in the last decade – the industry has clear potential: not only would insects be available all year, it would create jobs, help manage food waste, which is used as feed, and insect manure, or frass, could create fertilisers.
The World Bank has estimated that within a year, black soldier fly (BSF) farming could generate crude protein worth up to $2.6bn (£1.9bn) and biofertilisers worth up to $19.4bn. The process would recycle 200m tonnes of crop waste.
Although the bulk of existing farms produce insects for human consumption, there has been growing interest in insects as animal feed. Demand has trebled in the last decade in Kenya alone, and feed manufacturers have been increasingly looking for alternatives to soya and fishmeal, which are plagued by volatile prices, variable quality and poor environmental records.
Research suggests that animals fed insect protein, notably BSF, achieved faster growth rates and better-quality meat than with soya or fishmeal. Production costs are relatively stable, and will go down as operations are scaled up, said Talash Huijbers, founder of InsectiPro, one of the largest BSF farms in Kenya. “With the pandemic, people are starting to appreciate the value of local protein production,” she said.
Shobhita Soor, head of Legendary Foods, a palm weevil farm in Ghana, has seen similar trends. Many of her customers want to eat “made in Ghana” products.
Soor’s ambition is to “deliver the nutrition of meat at the price point and sustainability of plant”, a mission that has led to a relentless search for efficiency gains. “Last year, we managed to reduce our costs of production by 40%. If we want to be as ubiquitous as chicken, it’s incumbent on us to do the R&D to continue to optimise our production.”
She is looking to raise $5m this year to build her first large-scale plant, while InsectiPro is planning an $11m expansion: it has already opened two more BSF facilities in Kenya and wants to expand in Uganda and Rwanda.
Only 16 species are farmed in Africa, but the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya has been looking at how to raise various insect species since 2014 and has trained thousands of would-be “entopreneurs”.
Publications such as the World Bank report are vital to put insect protein on the radar of governments – insects do not appear in any national food strategy. Other large development finance institutions, such as the International Finance Corporation and the US Agency for International Development, are also looking into insect farming. Meanwhile, the World Bank is planning pilot investments in South Sudan, Malawi, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
“From the number of meeting requests I have received since the publication of the report, I can tell you that [people] are really interested,” said Verner.