Unique Solutions: Transforming pests into profit

Reports of swarms of desert locusts descending on farms in East African countries including Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, Uganda, Eritrea and Tanzania have once again littered news websites, with the first wave of locusts hitting Kenya in December 2019. The swarms, considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world, have the ability to consume up to 1.8 million metric tons of green vegetation, equivalent to food enough to feed 81 million people according the World Bank’s factsheet dated 1 July 2020 and thereby threaten the food security of millions of people.

Efforts to control the swarms saw the locusts attacked with insecticides both from farmers on the ground and aerial spraying from planes. Unusual weather patterns and higher rainfall have created ideal conditions for the increase in locust numbers. The secondary effects of pesticides on drinking water, livestock and other insects such as bees have added to the difficulties faced by people in affected areas.

Innovation from necessity

While the World Bank and international agencies like the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) provides financial and technical assistance to those affected, a regenerative agriculture company hopes to turn despair into opportunity by harvesting the desert locust infestation as a crop that can be processed into animal feed and fertiliser. The agriculture company has enlisted the aid of local farmers in central Kenya to harvest, crush, dry and mill the insects to create a locally produced, competitively priced protein source used for animal feed and organic fertilizer that is environmentally sustainable to farm. The insects are collected at night, when they are resting on shrubs and trees.

Community engagement creates impact

The company pays local farmers per kilogram of the insects collected, usually via local mobile money products. There will be different formulations fed to broiler chickens as part of the project, which will be run by Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and all resources will be made open source at the end of the project. In the coming year additional funding will be sought to continue with the project in the hopes of establishing the normalisation of locusts as a crop.

A similar project has been implemented in Pakistan by the state-run Pakistan Agricultural Research Council following Pakistan’s worst locust infestation in 30 years which started in June 2019, when the insects migrated from Iran. Edible bug advocates have commissioned research about the health benefits and digestibility of crickets in pet food in an effort to persuade the US Food and Drug Administration to declare bugs as an approved ingredient in pet food.

What this means for investors?

In early 2021, Barclays commented that the expanding market around the alternative protein source and edible bug industry could be worth $8 billion by 2030. With the United Nations estimating over 2 billion births worldwide for the period 2015-2030, food production will need to increase to meet this growing demand. The environmental impact of meat production and traditional farming methods includes deforestation, the treatment of agricultural fields with toxic chemicals and emissions such as methane and carbon dioxide. Given food security requirements, environmental considerations including climate change and water quality and the movement by consumers towards the consumption of sustainable food sources, entrepreneurs are looking towards the insect market. Even if a sizable portion of consumers are not able to imagine bugs as a regular menu item, farming insects for the production of fish feed for aquaculture would contribute to alleviating the environmental impact of the production of soy, corn and other plant-based ingredients of fish feed.

The future of agri-tech in Africa

Given that many low income households in African countries already include insects in their diets, entrepreneurs and investors could look towards ways of making insect products available on a larger scale to these households and changing perceptions and making insect products a more attractive prospect for higher income households.

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