‘Massive lumps of protein’: Zimbabwe’s edible-insect farmer | Local weather

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“Oh, they sing! I love their sounds. I love to be in a room full of crickets, ”enthuses Esnath Divasoni, her eyes sparkling behind her large glasses. She is wearing a blue and green dress and black jacket with her hair tied back and smiling at the Zoom call. “I love what I do and why I do it,” she says.

The 33-year-old mother of one is an edible insect breeder in rural eastern Zimbabwe. While the people in her village and beyond have been eating insects and worms that were gathered in the forest or gathered during harvest for generations, the young entrepreneur has found a way to grow them all year round and in quantities large enough to feed their community and help them alleviate the effects of climate change.

In 2020 she set up her edible insect production facility in a small corrugated iron room on her parents’ farm in Marondera, about 100 kilometers east of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Like her parents, everyone in her community is smallholder, growing corn, sweet beans, peanuts, tobacco, and other crops, and tending cows and chickens. Their farm is one of 150 homesteads grouped into three villages, which lie on a flat landscape criss-crossed by rivers and dams.

As everywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, life in the villages is becoming more and more difficult. According to the forecast of the Global Food Crisis Report 2020 (GFCRF), the country is in severe food insecurity as millions of people already need humanitarian aid. “Climate fluctuations have become more extreme in recent years. We have experienced both floods and droughts, ”explains Divasoni. This has reduced crop yields and led to malnutrition, hunger and poverty – and also to a decline in education, as parents cannot afford to send their children to school when resources are scarce. Zimbabwe is one of 10 countries in the world where fewer than 20 percent of infants are receiving minimally adequate nutrition, which affects their quality of life for a long time, the report said.

When Divasoni was growing up, her parents valued education but did not have the means to pay for high school for all of their children. “Back then, given limited family resources, it was normal for a 15-year-old to get married, and many believed that marriage was a woman’s greatest achievement. So my four sisters got married early, ”says Divasoni.

But she wanted to study and a scholarship from the international NGO CAMFED (Campaign for Female Education) enabled her to go to secondary school and then university in Costa Rica and was the first person in her village to leave her family to go abroad to study.

Esnath takes care of plants at EARTH University [Photo courtesy of EARTH University]Today she is one of the two main trainers of the CAMFED Farming Guide Program, which shows young women from rural poor backgrounds how to use innovative and indigenous farming techniques to help them adapt to and fight against climate change. To date, Divasoni and her partner have trained 320 agricultural leaders in multiple districts, and these new trainees are now passing on their knowledge to other women across the country. They focus on women because they are often the first to feel the effects of climate change as they work the land and feed their families. In many parts of Asia and Africa, women make up 60 percent of the agricultural workforce, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Proteins of the future

While studying Agricultural Sciences at EARTH University in Costa Rica, Divasoni was determined to find a way to tackle malnutrition and food insecurity in her community and beyond. “I love to eat insects, so I did some research,” she laughs. “As children, we plucked worms from trees in the summer and followed the harvest with plastic bags to collect insects. Everyone did and the trend continues to this day. ”But she wanted to find a way so that families would have a more abundant and more regular source of insects than the handful they could only gather at certain times of the year.

She discovered that grilling is a sustainable and affordable source of protein. “They are very nutritious. They’re low in fat and high in protein, vitamins, and minerals, ”she says. Plus, they use very little resources and, unlike cattle, produce almost no greenhouse gases, she adds.

Crickets are native to the region, do not fly and have many predators such as lizards, mice and chickens so there is no risk of them escaping and creating a plague like grasshoppers that cause devastating crops across Africa. When she was young people tried to harvest swarms of locusts, she recalls, but she wouldn’t advise it now as they are likely full of pesticides and other chemicals that are meant to eradicate them.

After settling on crickets, she tried to come up with a simple, inexpensive, and easy-to-use method to breed them so that other women in her community could learn to do the same.

Barbecue for adults [Photo courtesy of Lameck Marondera]Anyone can build a cricket farm because it takes up so little space and equipment, she says. Hers is a simple five by seven meter room with rows of large blue and green wash tubs stacked on two shelves. “I did not buy anything. I use everything around me. We have to be very creative, ”she says. “The food containers are the large wash bowls in which you wash your blankets,” which she covers with a cloth. She adds egg cartons for the crickets to hide under like they do in the wild, and recycles the supermarket’s plastic meat or fruit trays for them to feed on. Other everyday containers serve as incubators and water dispensers.

Once a week she feeds her crickets with a specially prepared feed made from dried beans, sorghum and a little calcium, which is enriched every five days with kitchen waste and vegetables from the garden. “I only use local resources, so I don’t have to import soy or anything else. And what I put in the crickets goes back to the garden because their poop [high in nitrogen and phosphorus] is a great fertilizer, ”she explains.

When the crickets have matured after five to eight weeks, depending on the temperature, their eggs are collected to start a new production cycle and the adults are harvested. A few seconds in hot water will kill them, then they can be boiled, fried, roasted, or dried in lightly salted water to add to broths and soups. A full-grown cricket can be up to three inches long and one inch wide. “These are big chunks of protein” with edible legs and wings that taste a bit like fried chicken skin, she says.

Esnath takes care of the crickets [Photo courtesy of Lameck Marondera]At first, people in their community were skeptical. “They never thought that insects could be raised. For them it was a waste of space and money. They said to my parents, ‘Your daughter went abroad and now she’s bringing this American thing into the church,’ ”she smiles. “But now it’s a normal thing.” She reserves her crickets for her family and friends and sells the rest in the market for $ 1 for a pack of 50g dried crickets.

A family of four to five needs about 100 g to 200 g of insects for a nutritious meal. They are usually served with sadza, a staple food made from fine corn, which is rather bland, so that the crispy, salty crickets give the flavor.

Divasoni now has 20 cups that produce around 1,000 crickets, or around 1 kg of high quality protein, every five to eight weeks. She says that producing the same amount of chicken would require twice the feed, four times the space, and ten times the water.

“Insects are a climate-smart way of producing proteins. They are the proteins of the future, ”she says. Their plan is to develop a large network of edible insect breeders first across the community and then further afield. She has already trained 15 women in her community and each has started training another four women so they can all support their families and earn an income. “I do this not only for myself to make a profit, but also for other women, because the fight against malnutrition is not the journey of a single person.”

Esnath conducts training in her community [Lameck Marondera/Al Jazeera]

“The children love the food”

It is too early to assess the nutritional and financial impact of edible insects on the community as women have only just started growing and their production is still limited. But many say they are grateful to have learned a new way to support their families. “It’s a welcome intervention,” says Judith, a 65-year-old who looks after four of her primary school-age grandchildren. “We had all lost our chickens to an outbreak of disease. But now we have a source of animal protein and the children love eating with crickets. “

Divasoni believes her model is reproducible in other regions of the country and across Africa. There are already many cricket farmers in Kenya, she says, and the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology in Bondo has an entire department dedicated to insect production and research for human and animal consumption, funded by the World Bank.

She sees her edible insect breeding and training as a complement to her leadership role at CAMFED Agriculture Guides, who show women and young people how to improve the productivity and sustainability of their farms through climate-smart methods of soil conservation, irrigation, fertilization, pest control and agroforestry.

“I work with my community to mitigate the effects of things that have happened many generations away and, in many cases, in places far away from us. With the small but fine things we do, we are able to reduce the effects of climate change on our own lives and build resilience for future generations, ”she says.