Small insects offer big nutrition opportunities

July 8, 2016 by PATH

Raising edible insects is opening new doors for health and economic livelihood.

Returning to a nutritious old tradition: the farming and eating of edible insects. Photos: PATH/Megan Parker.

Returning to a nutritious old tradition: the farming and eating of edible insects. Photos: PATH/Megan Parker.

There’s none of the usual fuss on Sofia’s farm—no truck, no bellowing cattle, no hay or water troughs. Just a strong, sweet smell and the faint sound of her children playing in the yard.

Smiling, the Ghanaian entrepreneur gives PATH researcher Dr. Nikki Kalra a tour. Together, they walk around the side of her house, past a few chickens scratching in the sun, and into a covered shed. There, she plunges her fingers into a blue bucket and brings out her “livestock”: Two fat, cream-colored grubs.

Akokono,” she explains: Palm weevil larvae. In other words: Food.

A woman holds palm weevil larvae in her outstretched hands.

In Ghana, the palm weevil larvae, or akokono, is an alternate form of protein that’s making a resurgence in the form of home-based microfarms. Photo: PATH/Megan Parker.

Akokono are nothing new in Ghana. For years, they were a familiar meal—packed with protein, fat, and flavor. But the bucket, and the three others lined up in Sofia’s shed, are part of a new approach. By helping women start home-based akokono microfarms, PATH, partners, and communities are turning an old tradition into a new avenue for health and prosperity.

A crucial alternative

A woman grinding a paste in a large bowl next to a pot of cooking akokono.

During a training session, women take turns cooking akokono. PATH/Megan Parker.

“Worldwide, millions of children suffer from malnutrition,” says Megan Parker, a senior nutrition researcher at PATH. “They are part of the estimated one in nine people who don’t get enough food to lead a healthy and active life, according to the World Food Programme.”

The cost is especially high for kids. Chronic malnutrition stunts their growth and can hinder brain development. It also hurts little immune systems, which opens the door to diseases and infections that make it harder to stay nourished and can spark a chronic cycle of malnutrition and illness.

“In addition,” says Megan, “population growth and growing incomes are creating a rising global demand for protein, particularly from animal sources. At the same time, climate change and other ecological pressures are making it more difficult to raise the cows, pigs, and other livestock many people rely on. To stay healthy, and help children to grow up strong, the world needs sustainable food alternatives.”

“Sometimes,” she says, “that means taking a step back: Revisiting healthy local foods—things like wild-growing vegetables, small rodents, and insects—that have fallen out of use.”

Gaining legs

A cricket farmer tends to his bins of insects.

Thailand has thousands of cricket farms that are meeting a growing market for edible insects. Photo: PATH/Megan Parker.

Although PATH works in nutrition, it wasn’t the first group to embrace edible insects. The idea has been (ahem) growing legs for years. Yet Megan knew PATH could help. Intrigued, the team travelled to Thailand, where there’s a strong market for edible insects and thousands of farms to meet it.

“What we saw there was insect farming as a way of life,” says Megan. “During one farm tour we asked ‘So, is this a good way to make money? Our guide, a respected professor, looked at us like we were crazy. ‘He has his own karaoke room!’ she said. In other words—‘Yes. Enough for luxuries like this.’”

Two people hold buckets full of crickets.

Photo: PATH/Megan Parker.

Big help in a small package

In other communities, insects can provide something more basic: food and income to support a family. “Microfarming can both address nutritional deficiencies and empower women,” explains Nikki, “two crucial pillars of child health.” Insects provide children with the proteins, fat, and nutrients often missing from their diets and give women a product they can raise and sell close to home. “Right away,” says Nikki, “we saw just how powerful this approach could be.”

On the table in Ghana

Three views of akokono and shreds of palm wood in a bucket.

“Akokono absorb flavors. Stir-fry them in a sauce, and they taste like shrimp. Grilled, they’re like beef. People put them in stews, too.” —Dr. Megan Parker, a senior nutrition researcher at PATH. Photo: PATH/Megan Parker.

Next, the team went to Ghana, where an innovative project by Aspire, a social enterprise at the forefront of insect farming, is equipping women to farm and sell akokono. Over generations, workers have harvested the larvae while collecting sap for palm wine, another local product, and brought them home to eat. Yet as pesticide use rose, the bugs diminished—taking them off the table.

Aspire changed the model. They gave women starter kits to farm akokono at home: a bucket, a screened lid, a feed mix of palm wood and sugar water (the source of the sweet smell on Sophia’s farm) and a few larvae. So far, communities have welcomed the nutrition and income, and akokono are popular in local markets. To expand the effort, PATH is working with Heifer International and Aspire to provide kits to more Ghanaian women and to support communities to market the product.

Eat like your grandparents?

Of course, it can take time to get used to insects as food. Even in Ghana, says Nikki, “grandparents talk about akokono fondly, but younger generations can be squeamish.” That’s not just an issue in Ghana: worldwide many eating habits have changed in the last two generations, and once-popular traditional foods may seem strange to younger palates.

Yet as a meal, insects are relatively easy to love. Asked how akokono taste, Megan and Nikki answer without hesitation: “Delicious.” For picky eaters, a nutrient-rich powder made from the insect can also be mixed (read: hidden) in other dishes, quietly boosting nutrition.

Future food

So, are insects the food of the future?

That may not be the right question, say Megan and Nikki. Both emphasize that insects aren’t a fix-all for malnutrition, ecological change, or poverty.

“Still, in a world under increasing strain, edible insects have a lot to offer farmers like Sophia and their children,” says Megan. “As part of wider efforts to address malnutrition and health, it’s worth getting excited about—or at least familiar with—insects on the menu.”

Seven people strike poses against a wall to spell out "akokono."

During a training session, the team had time for a little fun. Can you tell what they’re spelling out? Photo: PATH.