Good Grub in Africa

The news that Espitas, a restaurant in Dresden, Germany, has lines around the block for its maggot ice cream and maggot salad was no surprise to entomologist Marc Kenis from Switzerland’s CABI Bioscience, a nonprofit group that works on sustainable agriculture projects. Kenis has been sweating over ways to help keep caterpillars on the African menu, especially during the hungry months when food is scarce.

African insect larvae like these are cheap, available, and have more protein and fat than beef or fish.© G. Sileshi

There is a long history of insect consumption in Africa. A UN study shows that 85 percent of participants in the Central African Republic consume caterpillars of various kinds; 70 percent in the Congo and 91 percent in Botswana. Kenis has been working with Zambian researcher Gudeta Sileshi of the World Agroforestry Center to make edible insect larvae a sustainable cash crop for Africans. He thinks that researchers should promote edible insect larvae as an answer both to food scarcity and the destruction of African forests.

"Conservation laws need to be reinforced and include protection of traditional [insect] harvesting rules," explains Sileshi, adding that "caterpillar reserves" within wildlife parks will need to be clearly marked and breeding regulations monitored.

Sileshi says that investment from the private sector may be needed to bring larvae to African tables. He notes that consumption of insects also averts many cases of kwashiorkor—a type of protein deficiency common in children. The larvae have more protein and fat than beef or fish, according to the UN.

"I personally know and appreciate the value of edible insects in the African diet after having lived in Africa for 12 years," says Gillian Allard, a forestry officer at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Professor Jaboury Ghazoul in ecosystem management at ETH Zurich is conducting research on one breed of about 20 commonly eaten edible caterpillars. "There is a huge sum of money that these worms are putting into the local economy," says Ghazoul. Limitations are currently with collection, marketing and sales, since caterpillar population explosions occur twice a year, with no set schedule.

The major hurdle that researchers such as Kenis and Sileshi will confront, Ghazoul suspects, will be eliminating diseases which prevail when wild populations of insects become domesticated and bred in high concentrations. But it’s not an insurmountable problem.

"People in Zambia don’t have chicken or fish and we forget that," says Kenis. "As Africa shifts from its traditional practices that once protected caterpillars and forests, the people now need new tools to create local enterprises among harvesters to help the people survive—especially during the dry months when food is scarce."

Westerners may never develop a gourmet caterpillar cuisine. Kenis says the taste of unseasoned larvae is none too pleasing, and that even Zambians seem to like their caterpillars best when fried in palm oil and smothered in tomato sauce and onions. Some grubs are reported to have a nutty flavor, but they’re undoubtedly an acquired taste.