Have you ever thought of consuming a meal made of crickets?
Would you embrace an alternative eating habit that would introduce the chirping insect to the food on your table?
A few years ago, a former Finance Minister in Kenya suggested that Kenyans diversify their eating habits by eating ants, rats, and roots as a way to fight food insecurity and malnutrition. This sparked a heated debate among Kenyans. Some argued he was insensitive for making a joke out of a serious situation when thousands were suffering from food shortages and malnutrition.
Rearing crickets to boost food security
However, as Kenyans still debate on whether to embrace alternative eating habits, some residents of Bondo, in Nyanza, are already living it. A group of farmers in Bondo has turned to rearing crickets to boost their finances as well as tackle food insecurity. I travelled to the region where I met 61-year-old, Florence Awuor, who has been cricket farming for the past four years. She is among several farmers from the region who received training on cricket farming for a month from the Jaramogi Odinga Oginga University; after which they were given the first batch of crickets to start with. When she was back home she also started trapping crickets in her farm when weeding to add to her lot. “I decided to do cricket farming because I think it is a nice venture. You don’t need so much to start it because we have crickets all over,” she says.
Florence notes that cricket rearing is much easier compared to crop farming. She keeps her crickets in large buckets inside a small room, just about 5ft by 6ft. As of now, she has seven buckets, each covered with a white net. This she says helps to keep the insects inside the bucket, therefore, protecting them from the predators like rats. Inside the bucket she has placed egg trays, making it a bit darker and providing a perfect hideout for the nocturnal insects. At the bottom of the bucket, she places flour that the crickets feed on. “I also place sukuma wiki (kale) inside the bucket for the crickets to feed on and because crickets also need water, I sprinkle some water on the sukuma wiki,” she says. She monitors the temperature of the room with a thermometer to ensure that the temperatures are retained at 35 degrees Celsius. Very high temperatures would kill the insects, whereas 35 degrees Celsius is ideal to enable hatching of more eggs. Each bucket has crickets in different stages of growth. Mature crickets lay eggs that hatch within a few days. Each female cricket can lay five to ten eggs a day. By one and half months, the new insects can lay eggs, thus continuing the cycle. She only harvests mature and she is elated to take me through the process of harvesting and frying crickets, the quickest delicacy to prepare.
Preparing fried crickets
First, she boils some water. Then she picks some crickets from the bucket and immerses them in the boiling water. This is to make them lifeless as well as to remove any germs and dirt on them. She does this with a sense of urgency as some crickets try to hop and escape. After about one minute she removes them from the water using a sieve. She lets the water drip off of them and dry. She then puts them in a frying pan and adds a little oil. “Crickets have their own oil so we will just put a little to prevent them from sticking to the pan,” she says. She lets them fry for about two minutes and adds some salt as they start tanning. She stirs it for a minute and it is ready to be served.
As we sit down to try this new delicacy, Florence tells me that her family and friends were stunned and did not understand why she was keeping the insects. However, today they support her and they like feeding on the various dishes she prepares for them. “My children and grandchildren were a bit cynical about the whole idea, but today they are the ones who ask me to prepare them cricket meals,” she says.
Trying out crickets for the first time
I was not sure if I wanted to try eating the meal set before me. She was serving the fried crickets with rice. After some deliberating and thinking of ways to respectfully decline the meal, I gathered the courage to try. Taking the first bite cautiously, thinking about the insect it was before it was served on the plate. However, by the third bite I was liking the sweet aroma and the crunchiness. By the time I was finishing my plate of food, you would not have thought I had hesitated at the beginning.
A kilogram goes for $5
Florence is among more than 20 farmers from her area who rear crickets and they market their products collectively. They supply to one of the major hotels in Kisumu, the lakeside city in Western Kenya. They also export to neighboring Uganda where residents are more used to consuming crickets. Her group also exports some crickets to the United States, but her wish is to be able to convince more locals to consume since they have the capability to produce more. She sells a kilogram of crickets at 500 shillings ($5) which she believes is a fair price.
After trying this delicacy, I decided to ask a cross section of Kenyans, both in Nairobi and Bondo, if they were willing to try out crickets. Many expressed mixed reactions about the subject. Kevin Otieno, a resident of Bondo said he could only eat crickets if he has no other meal. George Sewe, also a resident, said he has been consuming crickets for years and he does not understand why other people are scared of trying it. In Nairobi, Clare Nduta says that so long as they are not poisonous she can eat them. For Paul Kamau, cricket farming should be encouraged countrywide to enable many families in other regions to have a taste of it. “I have read various researches about crickets and I just wish that the government could take up the project and roll it out in large scale,” says Paul.
Convincing farmers at first not easy
Florence learned the skills after being taken through one month of training in a local university. This was a concept brought by Prof. Monica Ayieko, coordinator of food security, at the university. At the university they identify a potential farmer, they then train them and give them crickets for startup which they can use to maintain the cycle. At first, it was not easy to convince individuals to try out cricket farming as most locals consider crickets as useless insects. With time, they started embracing the idea and now they get trained and the University helps them to get markets for their crickets.
Prof. Ayieko says that crickets are readily available and do not have any harm to the body when consumed. Crickets are very nutritious and that is why the professor is always advising mothers to feed their children with crickets to fight malnutrition. She notes that crickets are rich in proteins, zinc, iron, copper, calcium and low on calories.
“Kenya’s food security index is about 36%, which is very low. If we break borders and bring in new foods that are nutritious and acceptable then we will increase by at least 20,” she says.
Value addition is essential in this venture and Prof. Ayieko has introduced various cricket cuisines which are now on the shelves of many shops and menus of several hotels. These cuisines include; crushed cricket biscuits, cricket samosas, cricket fried rice, cookies and cricket fritters. The cricket biscuits and cookies are made by a mixture of flour with crushed dried crickets through a mortar with a pestle.
People consume more than 1,900 insect species globally
Insects form the largest number of living creatures on the earth, but how many species of insects can be edible and can it be the answer to food insecurity? A recent Food and Agriculture Organization report revealed that people consume more than 1,900 insect species, globally with the most common edible species being beetles at 31 percent, caterpillars at 18 percent, bees, wasps and ants at 14 percent. Following these are grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (13 percent). Termites, which are among the most common in Kenya, stand at a mere 3 percent. The research, titled “Edible Insects; Future Prospects For Food and Feed Security,” acknowledges that insects are one major and readily available source of nutritious and protein-rich food. The report said that consumer acceptance is the biggest obstacle to making insects a viable source of protein. FAO recommended alternative solutions to conventional livestock and feed and said the consumption of insects contributes positively to the environment, health and livelihood of populations.
FAO also notes that one in every four children in Sub-Saharan Africa is undernourished. The ‘hop and jump’ insects might be the much-needed solution to address malnutrition in the continent.