An avalanche of banana peels, mangoes, avocados and other rinds has just been delivered by truck to InsectiPro's facility, 30 km northwest of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. It's the daily meal for the black soldier fly stock of this successful enterprise established on the grounds of a familial mega-farm. Every day, InsectiPro's little creatures ingest 30 tonnes of this waste — which would otherwise end up in a landfill — and convert it into protein for animal feed and fertilizer for fields. “These are my babies,” CEO Talash Huijbers, 26, says, smiling as she dips her hand into a rearing tank teeming with whitish larvae. These larvae are the “missing link” to implementing circular agriculture, which doesn’t harm the planet.
Talash Huijbers founded InsectiPro in 2018 after completing a master's degree in the Netherlands in international food and the food processing industry. In her eyes, insects are superheroes. As a source of affordable and quality protein, they are a lifesaver for Kenyan farmers, who are being squeezed by the skyrocketing price of traditional feeds (soybean, corn and fish meal) for poultry and livestock. In this country of nearly 56 million people, where waste sorting and composting are still virtually non-existent, insects enable markets, cafeterias, juice makers and more to dispose of waste to good effect. The manure generated by insects provides a powerful fertilizer, which is also organic.
Insect rearing is booming in Kenya, where 60% of the population is under age 25 and 27% of the GDP comes from agriculture. While large companies like InsectiPro have taken an interest, so have thousands of small producers. They have been forced to give up raising chickens, pigs or fish because of the high cost of animal feed. Currently, resources are stretched in all corners of the world, including Canada. Some researchers even believe that, in the not-too-distant future, insect rearing could be the model to follow — and not just to feed animals.
“Livestock food is in direct competition with human food. The demand for soybeans imported from Brazil is enormous, owing to population growth. There is also a growing interest in animal protein… We're not advocating that people stop eating beef. But the way it's being produced is not sustainable for the planet, for all of us,” says Ethiopian plant pathologist Segenet Kelemu, who leads the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), an entomology research institute founded in Nairobi in 1970.
Kenya is one of Africa's leaders in this industry, thanks to a tropical climate favourable to insect rearing and, most notably, the expertise of ICIPE, nicknamed Duduville (“city of bugs” in Swahili).
Established on a flowery campus, Duduville is home to colonies of insects — from disease transmitters to livestock and crop pests, including potential food products such as crickets, grasshoppers, palm weevils and black soldier flies. ICIPE was created in part to promote emerging scientific research on insects in post-colonial Africa. It welcomes students and researchers from around the world.
In 2012, Segenet Kelemu saw the potential of the research being conducted at ICIPE and established the Insects for Food, Feed and Other Uses (INSEFF) program. That is where it all started. The initiative was supported by the Cultivate Africa's Future Fund, a CAD35-million partnership between IDRC in Ottawa and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. This funding enabled INSEFF to demonstrate the profitability of large-scale insect production. While INSEFF refined innovative harvesting and rearing techniques, government authorities created standards allowing the products to be marketed. “In terms of technology, it's one of the fastest start-ups I've ever seen: the private sector — like InsectiPro and Sanergy [Kenya's waste collection giant] — got on board very quickly,” adds Kelemu, whom we met on Duduville's restaurant patio. The program, which was launched in Kenya and Uganda, has now spread to some 20 African countries.
Since insects have long been part of many Africans' diet, one of the program's goals was to find ways to provide insects year-round. “Traditionally, it is the women and children who harvest the insects in the forest, a strenuous job in the peak season. Making insects accessible frees women from this chore,” says Kelemu.
Among the objectives: reducing malnutrition in Kenya, where an estimated 3.1 million people are severely food insecure in 2022, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, used by governments and UN agencies, among others. According to a 2020 study by Kelemu's team, replacing 50% of traditional animal feed with insects would provide enough fish and corn to feed an additional 4.8 million Kenyans annually.
Reared with food waste provided free of charge by local markets and schools, the flies are proving lucrative: Bug's Life sells a tonne a month to a local pet food producer
Kenya is being hit hard by climate change. For the past three years, an extreme drought has plagued the north of the country, as well as other parts of the Horn of Africa, starving the population and decimating livestock. “Insects are a sustainable food source that can contribute to food security in Kenya and Africa in general,” says agricultural entomologist Chrysantus Tanga, 45, head of the INSEFF program, whom we interviewed in Duduville. “Especially since they require much less water and land than cattle.”
Although he has published some one hundred articles in scientific journals, Tanga, a native of Cameroon, is a researcher who is not confined to his lab: he is known to the heads of large companies as well as to small-scale farmers. Under his leadership, more than 11,000 Kenyan and Ugandan farmers received Duduville's intensive week-long training on how to feed their animals and potentially sell their surplus. They also received a starter kit of five kilograms of black soldier fly eggs. About 40% of the participants were women, who were able to start their production at home, despite limited financial means and reduced mobility owing to their traditional role.
“Insects gave me the opportunity to revive the business,” says Doreen Mbaya Ariwi, 40, a poultry farm owner. In 2019 she founded Bug's Life, which now employs seven people. From the capital, it's a bumpy two-hour ride to her farm in Machakos County. This is a semi-arid area where we meet zebras, wildebeests and scrawny cows. In 2015, Ariwi was facing bankruptcy because she could not afford to pay for poultry feed.
Today, her 3,000 chickens, fed with black soldier flies, are healthy. “They fatten up faster and I get a better price for them than I used to,” says this small, energetic woman, confirming the research conducted by ICIPE. “Eggs are also more abundant.” Based on the jostling we saw around the feeders this morning, game birds seem to enjoy the fly diet. Reared with food waste provided free of charge by local markets and schools, the flies are proving lucrative: Bug's Life Farm sells a tonne a month to a local pet food producer. “I don't supply on demand,” says Ariwi.
This is because the challenges are numerous in this region, which has no running water or electricity. “It's hard to set the temperature,” explains Lincy Osore, 27, the Bug's Life technical director. She's wearing a mint green uniform and a cap. “During the very hot months, many larvae die.” During my June visit, in the middle of the Kenyan winter, the outdoor temperature was around 20°C, with no premature deaths reported. Just the opposite. Under the greenhouse we're in, the black soldier flies are mating in their “love nests”: dozens of cages with nets instead of bars, fixed to metal structures. Once reared, the flies deposit their microscopic yellow eggs between the wood chips provided for this purpose.
Lincy Osore unties the net of a cage and slips her arm inside to show me a chip. “There’s no risk of being stung or bitten,” she reassures me. “Adult flies have no mouth.” At this final stage of their short life (around 40 days, of which only seven are in adult life), they subsist on their reserves and devote themselves to reproduction and egg-laying. To encourage them to do so, rearers must place scented bait in the cages. “Decomposing chickens,” Osore specifies as she opens a container filled with a pestilential grey mixture. “It stinks, but it turns them on!”
Nicholas Ndekei, a 24-year-old economics and finance graduate, also started rearing black soldier flies in 2019, after training at ICIPE. He set up two greenhouses on his family's land, near InsectiPro, in lush Kiambu County, rich in tea and coffee farms. The local pig slaughterhouse provides him with nauseating remains that his critters love. After a lot of trial and error, his animal feed business is now profitable. “You'd think producing insects would be easy, but it's not — and the competition is fierce,” says this sturdy, soft-spoken man. He specifically deplores the fact that the major players in the field keep their recipes secret. “There are many challenges, including getting rid of predatory ants without harming the fly population.”
The young entrepreneur markets his products (live or dehydrated larvae and insect manure) under the brand name Zihanga — a phonetic compound of “Zero Hunger”, one of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Concerned about the poverty that plagues his country, this son of an engineer and a women's rights activist also founded a social economy enterprise: Y Minds Connect, which brings together 70 twenty-somethings, both students and the unemployed (unemployment affects 40% of young people). “The demand for insect products is huge and can be very profitable,” he says. “Our ambition is to create a collective action farm [a cooperative], where each member works and gets a decent income.”
Sanergy is involved in community life on a completely different scale. Founded in 2011, the 500-employee waste collection and recovery company began rearing insects in 2013. Today, it is one of the most important producers in Kenya. Its black soldier flies benefit from the 60,000 tonnes of waste the company processes each year: mainly food and agricultural waste, but also sanitation waste. The latter comes from the dry toilets that Sanergy supplies to the shanty towns of Nairobi, where millions of people are crowded. All that waste is transformed into useful products: insect-based feed for animals, organic fertilizers and biofuel briquettes.
“This circular economy reduces soil pollution and greenhouse gases from illegal dumping,” explains Sanergy's managing director, Michael Lwoyelo, a strapping, friendly man who can talk about this all day. The enterprise, an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), plans to replicate this model in other African metropolises struggling with garbage proliferation.
Despite the heat, a mask is a welcome barrier as we approach the Sanergy plant, located outside Nairobi on a large land plot leased from the government. The stench is unrelenting. Garbage heaps are waiting to be ground up and combined with secret dry mixtures to serve to black soldier flies. The stench does nothing to deter the giant storks flying over the site.
The contrast is radical inside the greenhouses, where the different production stages take place, from the nurseries (where the larvae eat and grow) to the packaging area: the insects go through washing, pasteurization, drying and packaging. “Everywhere, hygiene standards are scrupulously followed,” says the CEO. “Quality control is essential to ensure the best possible larval survival rate and the elimination of any bacteria.”
Such thoroughness is far from being consistently applicable on small farms. Many of the farmers we visited for this story would likely have difficulty obtaining certification from the Kenya Bureau of Standards to market their products. It's the case for Mama Wele, a goat farmer in the Rumuruti region, 200 km north of Nairobi. This widow in her sixties explains that she has no other place to raise her black soldier flies than in her room, a miserable, windowless space. Neither is it easy to keep facilities clean when working with organic waste daily. “Some farmers can't afford to hire clean-up staff,” says Chrysantus Tanga. “Most farmers produce black soldier flies to feed their livestock and keep the crickets for personal consumption.” Yet, selling their surpluses would bring them additional income.
Monica Ayieko is well aware that insect rearing and consumption are still far from being accessible to everyone. A professor of consumer sciences at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology (JOOUST) in Bondo (near Lake Victoria), she believes in this industry nonetheless.
At 72 years old, with short white hair and a twinkle in her eyes behind her glasses, Ayieko runs the Africa Center of Excellence in Sustainable Use of Insects as Food and Feeds — and she has no intention of retiring. Housed on the small rural campus of JOOUST, the centre, which opened in 2017, is funded by the World Bank. It hosts student researchers from Kenya and a dozen other African countries, and trains farmers to raise crickets for human consumption.
Ayieko is a food-security specialist who has been interested in edible insects, including mayflies and termites, for over 20 years. When she returned to her native Kenya after completing a master's degree and doctorate in the United States, she had to battle to get her research accepted by the scientific community. “First, because I was a woman, but also because insect-based food was looked down upon,” she says. While edible insects are now widely studied, this pioneer laments that urban Kenyan youth are averse to them. “They were raised with the idea that educated people don't eat insects and that Western-style food is superior.”
With her team, Monica Ayieko is working to prove the contrary. She has just started a study on the impact of insect-based food on children's health. In about 100 villages in Siaya County, where the JOOUST campus is located, families will be followed for four years, from their training on rearing crickets to eating them daily. This Danish-funded survey will also be conducted in Uganda and Ghana.
“In Africa, we complain about starvation, but we have all the food we need to never go hungry,” she says. “Edible insects are available everywhere, year-round, drought or rain. But they are wasted due to lack of knowledge.”
Is there a risk of contracting diseases by eating bugs? “There is a lot of research being conducted on this, but so far, no one has reported a zoonosis transmitted this way,” replies Ayieko. However, people allergic to shellfish should be aware: insects and shrimp share the same exoskeletal chitin.
Eating insects is not new. Grilled, fried, roasted or boiled, they've been eaten for centuries. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that they are eaten regularly by two billion people in Africa, Asia and South America. Beetles, bees and caterpillars are among the most popular of the more than 1,900 edible species recorded to date. Their reputation varies, however, depending on the country and tradition: delicious to some, vulgar food of the poor to others.
But things are changing. According to a 2019 report by the British bank Barclays, the global insect market (for food and feed) could reach USD8 billion by 2030 (+24% per year). That's because the entire world is now interested, including Canada. The fourth international conference of Insects to Feed the World was held in Quebec City last June. At the same time, Université Laval created the Chair of Leadership in Education in Primary Production and Processing of Edible Insects — a first in Canada. From coast to coast, companies such as Entosystem (Sherbrooke, Quebec) and Enterra (Maple Ridge, B.C.) are entering the field.
Soaps, mosquito repellents, cosmetics, medicines, biodiesels . . . “The possibilities are endless,” enthuses researcher Chrysantus Tanga
“It's easier to rear black soldier flies in a tropical climate like Kenya than in Canada,” says Tanga, in Duduville. “Canadian producers must have extensive thermoregulation facilities, so the energy requirements are much greater.”
Black soldier flies and crickets are endemic species that respond well to mass rearing owing to their short life cycle and high reproduction rates. Although they are the star edible insects in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, a host of other species are going under researchers' microscopes. They are being analyzed mainly, but not exclusively, for their nutritional properties — especially in the form of oil. Soaps, mosquito repellents, cosmetics, medicines, biodiesels . . . “The possibilities are endless,” enthuses researcher Chrysantus Tanga, while showing me the products already developed at Duduville. The INSEFF program he directs explores various business opportunities: it collaborates with the sector's large companies, such as InsectiPro and Sanergy, which have the means to invest in research.
InsectiPro also rears crickets for human consumption. Those crickets are not fed waste but, rather, a vegetable-based mixture. Once dehydrated, some of them are processed into funky snacks in flavours such as barbecue, salt and vinegar, and caramel and cinnamon. Called Chirrup's, they are sold online to a trendy clientele. “It's like popcorn, but healthier,” says Talash Huijbers, offering me a taste.
They're not very appetizing to look at, these black, shrivelled insects, about one to two centimetres long… but they are pleasant to the taste, even evoking peanuts. Others are ground into powder and can be added to cookies or porridges for malnourished children.
At ICIPE, insect pests are also used. This includes locusts, a grasshopper species hated since antiquity (the eighth plague of Egypt). In 2020–21, billions of locusts invaded East Africa, devouring crops and further threatening the region's food security.
“We can also see them in an optimistic light,” explains Tanga as we enter the small room housing the specimens studied at ICIPE. In their glass and steel cages, around a dozen are copulating. “Locusts are one of the most important sources of protein that can help feed humans and livestock,” he says. His teams have been testing efficient and inexpensive harvesting techniques to enable local farmers to gather these bugs, like manna, and convert them into food.
A Kenyan start-up, The Bug Picture ventured into the industry during the recent locust invasions. “We harvested 4.5 tonnes of locusts in three months,” says project manager Anne Scilla. She is a Kenyan of British descent who owns a chicken and rabbit farm and also raises black soldier flies in the Nyahururu region, more than four hours north of Nairobi. Advised by ICIPE, The Bug Picture has trained about 100 farmers, paid by weight. The farmers had to collect the crickets at night while they slept perched on trees, by making them fall into large bags.
It wasn't easy, however, to track down the swarms. Unpredictable, they can change their trajectory in the blink of an eye. “They can also land in places that are difficult to access,” says Scilla, who has participated in this nightly harvesting. “One evening, we were even chased by elephants!”
But it was worth it. Once ground and dried, the harvested locusts were fed to local farmers' livestock. Most of the harvest, however, was given to the Kakuma Refugee Camp, in Kenya's drought-ravaged Turkana region in the far north. “They used the locusts to feed the chickens they raise on site,” says the project manager.
Has the eighth plague of Egypt turned into a heavenly gift in the 21st century? According to Segenet Kelemu and her colleagues, species that can be consumed by both people and animals could save humanity outright.
Isabelle Grégoire visited Kenya at the invitation of IDRC, which supports Cultivate Africa's Future Fund (CultiAF) and its program for long-term food security and improved gender equality.