Crawling Toward Food Security

Crawling Toward Food Security

Eating insects, reducing hunger, and increasing African farmers’ wealth.

Professor Monica Ayieko answered our initial inquiry to talk about her work in less than half an hour. Full of energy, she’s always busy, researching and teaching at Jaramogi OgingaOdinga University of Science and Technology (JOOUST) in Kenya. She helps Kenyan farmers and negotiates Kenyan politics. Professor Ayieko is a motivating person. And her story is one of incredible success in Africa. Working first as an extension worker in Kenya and later at university researching insects as food, Professor Ayieko and her team significantly reduced hunger in Kenya. In addition to reducing hunger and related illnesses, Professor Ayieko’s work is giving Kenyan farmers a promising future in environmentally friendly agriculture. Her ideas could work all over the world, which is why Professor Ayieko’s own words might convince us all to consider eating insects.

Christian Smetana: Tell us how all this started.

Monica Ayieko: When I was an extension worker in Kenya in the 1970s, I oversaw Agricultural Households Management. There were many problems. But the major one being addressed by the Ministry of Agriculture was food security. At that time, I had not been working with insects. But I came to realize the major problem with food security was hidden hunger—hunger brought about by lack of animal protein.

CS: How can that happen?

MA: Well, we grow a lot of beans, cereals, lentils, and vegetables. But I found that families depend so much on vegetable proteins for years that they don’t realize this hidden hunger affects them. I then came into the university system, and I was aware that we needed to do much more research on insects for food and feed.

CS: What results did you see?

MA: We tell the farmers to collect the insects. And we can tell them that they should do so not because better food is too expensive, but because the insects are much better than small animals or than eating lentils alone.

The problems of food security in Kenya are distribution and high levels of waste. A lot of food is produced in the Kenyan highlands. But because of lack of transport, the food doesn’t come down to other households. Those households have fewer opportunities for producing food. The rainy season lasts three months. People harvest afterward, but the food lasts only about six months. Then, hunger starts.

CS: And insects don’t depend on the rainy season?

MA: That’s correct. We can continuously produce insects. That’s why I started researching insects when I joined the university system. To my surprise, reactions to my work were very positive. Some of the farmers told me, “Hey, why didn't you tell us to eat insects earlier? We would have done it.”

Well, in the meantime, I was eating insects. But I was an extension worker, and I didn’t give it any importance. I didn’t yet know that insects are key to reducing hidden hunger. Besides, I told them, “If I had told you to eat insects, you would have told me ‘a rich, educated woman is telling us to eat insects. It’s for poor people.’ And you wouldn’t have done it. But now, I’ve learned the impact and value, and even I collect and eat insects.” In my house, everyone eats insects. That’s what I told them.

CS: A farmer can harvest insects frequently?

MA: The answer is yes and no. Insects are seasonal. You can harvest them in the field at certain times. In some periods, you can get one type of termite, and at other times, you can find similar but different insects. That’s why I started aggressively supporting the use of crickets. You can domesticate crickets, and you can then have the insects all year. I haven’t managed to do that with termites, because their habitat in the ground is too difficult. We don’t know well enough how they live, and when you touch their habitat, they move to another location.

CS: And you continue to help farmers in Kenya?

MA: Yes, very much. Right now, I focus on crickets. I teach farmers how to rear crickets, how to harvest them, and how to process them. And we have been very, very successful. At the university, we have a cricket farm, and we invite farmers to see and learn the whole process. We advise them in our food lab. It’s all quite successful.

CS: We could rear and harvest crickets in other world regions, right?

MA: For sure! Working with crickets could work in every country. But one major problem is that, even in Kenya, some communities won’t eat crickets. If you tell them they should do so, they ask you, “Are you sure? Is that really edible? Will we die if we eat them?”

There are also regional differences when it comes to eating insects. We need to use these cultural perceptions for our purpose. For instance, certain caterpillars are a delicacy in Zimbabwe and Kenya, but only on the coast. If you bring this caterpillar to my community, people will ask you if it’s safe to eat. Some folks might be afraid it will kill them.

Adobe Stock
Adobe Stock

CS: The main hurdle is cultural, right? Most of us are not used to eating insects.

MA: Exactly. The main problem is the way we were brought up. Even with me. I’m 70 years old. When I grew up, my mother told me I could eat termites, crickets, and grasshoppers. She told me where to find them. But as I became older, I went to school and joined “elite society.” It wasn’t necessary to go into the field and collect my food. I could afford to buy fish, chicken, and beef. And it took quite a while, but I realized that poverty is a major problem for taking care of food security in my country. That’s why I decided to teach Kenyan people that insects are good for them.

Still, education and culture are problems. Highly educated people in Kenya support me. But when they come to my university, and I offer them some insects, they say, “Thank you Mrs. Ayieko. I’ll try them next time, but not now.”

I tell them I wasn't used to eating insects, either. But I learned. And it’s important, if we really want to fight hidden hunger and poverty, that we change how those who can afford other foods think. Eating insects must not be a question of poor and rich. It must become familiar to all of us.

Adobe Stock
Adobe Stock

CS: At your university, cookies and bread are made from insects. What other products can be made from insects?

MA: The good thing is, once all these insects—locusts, termites, crickets, grasshoppers—are dried and ground to powder, you can add the powder to so many things. You can make scones, bread, biscuits, and pancakes. You name it. And that’s what we do. But we also teach people how to consume the whole insect.

CS: And hidden hunger in Kenya has been reduced?

MA: It has. Hidden hunger is caused by lacking things you don’t realize quickly, like iron or iodine. Many of these deficiencies, especially for children, weaken your body, make you sick and vulnerable. We’ve found that some elderly people who suffer from noncommunicable diseases do so because of hidden hunger. But it’s children who suffer the most. You can imagine, children who eat only a narrow variety of foods seven days a week for the whole year.

CS: How could we realize this successful diet in more countries? Is lobbying going on?

MA: Lobbying is very important to influence policy. Without lobbying, you can’t reach the politicians. And without a policy, people won’t accept it. Without acceptance, companies won’t spend money on it.

We don’t yet have a policy of insect consumption in Kenya. It’s considered ethnic delicacy, which requires no specific policy. Our government doesn’t promote insects for the Food and Feed program. So, we lobby for it. With the Kenyan Bureau of Standards, we’re developing a national standard for insect production and processing. It will be published soon. Kenya is reacting because they see our university’s work.

CS: You sound hopeful.

MA: I have never been so hopeful as I am now. We’ve developed the standards we need, we’ve revised our food-security policy, and more people are accepting the eating of insects. We’re doing more research to convince people to eat insects and to understand 95 percent of all insects can be eaten.

Think about that number.

We have about eighty postgraduate students researching and realizing interesting studies. We continue to bring in different aspects of eating insects. We’re convincing people that this caterpillar is eaten in Zambia and Zimbabwe, so it can be eaten in Kenya. We’re all Africans.

We’re also doing a lot of research on working with some insects. Some need preparation so that they’re safe to eat. So, we’re researching that, and we’re convincing people to collect those insects and process them properly. The people do it once, then do it a second time, then discover it tastes good, and then they stick to it. They tell the neighbors. It makes me very hopeful.

Also, we had a big success with insects people don’t want to eat. Our program is called Sustainable Insects for Food and Feed. We use unappealing insects to feed animals. For example, we have the Black Soldier Fly. We teach farmers to rear this fly and feed it to fish and poultry. It’s another way to support food security.

We also take part in many global summits, partnering with other people working on food security. For the first time, the World Bank supports my university. The financing helps us train students to a high level and offer postgraduate studies on insects for Food and Feed. World funding programs support our work on the topic.

I hope to industrialize the process. And I hope Kenyan farmers will fully accept the enterprise. There is a saying that goes, “A farmer wants food on the table and money in the pocket.” After a farmer learns to raise insects, that should mean more money. And so, we’re starting with commercializing crickets. This program is called HealthYnsect, and Danida Fellowship supports it.

And that says it. Insects are healthy for us all. They can help us and our planet a lot!

Monica Awuor Ayieko (PhD Family and Consumer Sciences/Human Sciences) is a Professor of Consumer Sciences at the Jaramogi OgingaOdinga University of Science and Technology, in the School of Agricultural and Food Sciences. Monica was born and brought up in Kenya, and educated in Kenya and the USA. She has a background in agricultural households and food production. She worked in the field as an extension worker for 15 years before going for higher degrees and later joining the university system as a lecturer and researcher. She developed a keen interest in the use of edible insects for food security, particularly for households in the Lake Victoria region, which has plenty of edible insects. The professor has been working with edible insects for more than 15 years in Western Kenya. She has published several academic and general documents on insects as food and feed. Professor Ayieko currently works with farmers to promote commercialization of insects at the farm level. Through the efforts of Professor Ayieko, JOOUST is a proud recipient of coveted ACE II World Bank funding to set up the Africa Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Use of Insects for Food and Feed. The project will work with local, regional, and international partners to develop research, increase the quality of higher education, promote insects for food security, and help manage our environment.

Monica Awuor Ayieko
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