Bugs and Checkers

I am about to start a training session on day-to-day management of a cricket farm and I get a call.

Boss…am around.

Who is this?

Deno. Denoo from China. We met in Beijing!

Denoo has landed. Denoo, the one who dons a checkered shirt and has a friend who dons a checkered shirt in a foreign city and eats dry-fry and waru in Beijing. He has been a graduate student in Wuhan, a university in a humid part of the globe. It’s like one big sauna during summer. You never dry up after a shower no matter how efficient your wipe towel is. He studied genetics and tells me he wants to make genetically modified crickets! I am still considering his request to accommodate him in my lab somewhere in a cool silent corner as he hone’s his idea and develops his love for edible insects. And maybe…just maybe…he can be an insectivore like most of us in the lab. With him around, we might strike a kill and be famous. After all.

We are at Checkers inn, Hurlingham. Seated at a reasonably quiet section of the lounge at the far end of the reception. I have a backpack on my side because I just landed from Kakuma Refugee camp on one of those United Nation flights. Landing at Wilson is a different experience from Landing at JKIA. Nairobi is beautiful from the Wilson skies unlike the dreary dry terrain over JKIA flight path. I was on a Danish Church Aid mission to establish a cricket farm in Kakuma refugee camp. Cool ha! Affordable proteins for all in service to humanity. One of those things you do as a duty to put a smile on a less privileged face. Truth is, very few of us reading this, right this moment will ever know how it feels to walk hundreds of miles in search for peace and safety, running away from the ghosts of war, away from the place you call home. And somehow finding yourself in a camp that a friendly government set aside to help your like, and you are expected to continue living…but that’s a story for tomorrow.

Denoo has a story and that’s why we are at Checkers. He knows I write about edible insects. He reads my blogs and comments sometimes. He had a bug eating moment a few weeks after landing in China. An experience he wanted to share while it’s still hot. Before he fades into the helter skelter of Nairobi city and genetics manenos. I arrive at checkers minutes before him and got to choose a vantage view to see him walk in. Hopefully in a checkered shirt. I call him and he responds in the usual nafika tu saa hii (am just about to arrive) vibe. A vibe that every Nairobian has mastered not matter how many miles away they are. Luckily, Denoo walks in few minutes later in a broad learned smile and sits across the table. He looks learned this one, especially after being in China for years. He has grown a beard too. He might land a position at join #teambeard.

I hope you had a good flight,! mæn

Yeah, not a problem. Am I not glad to be home!

I hope you’ve had a few local warus, dry fry and a cold tusker.

Will you have a drink?

Before he could answer I ordered a cold tusker but he declined. China has changed this guy…for the better I hope. But how could he refuse a drink from an ol’ fren! He tells me he no longer drinks. He is a teetotaler now.

We get to the business of the day. And he tells the story amidst disruptions from the waiters who were too eager to attend us.

He had spent the whole day climbing a mountain in the south of China, Yunnan province, in search of flora. They were searching for a genetic marker for resilience in some mountain vegetation.  Something revolutional. Something TiBIM! Spending a whole day up there wasn’t a walk in the park and it made him amend some info in his resume about nature walk as a hobby after realizing that it could be a torture as well.

At this point he mentions that the only content in his gut was ‘baozi’ and ‘jiaozi’ which I gather is some white fermented relish. So I imagine a guy who likes waru and dry fry, eating fermented white stuff! It must taste awful but I dint tell him though he seemed repulsed already.  Later he explains that baozi is a steamed bun while jiazi is dumpling and he hated them both. Basically he was famished by the time they got to the eatery. I tried dumpling in Beijing and mæn …they are quite something! It’s one of those things that require you to master all the physics of chewing and swallowing if you are to enjoy them. It’s served as a special Chinese food on some festival and all households have to serve it for dinner. A dumpling day.

Their guide had already placed an order, and so within seconds, the table was set with all manner of dishes. All. You should have seen the way he said the word ‘all’. The way you say a word with your hand raised just above your shoulders and the forehead raised and the word is more of a shriek.

Before him was fried banana stem and toasted beetle Larva. Aaarrghhhhhhh!! Ptuuuh! He would rather die than resign to this fate!! But on the other hand, curiosity was taking care of his fears. They looked delicious. The banana stems, he could try but the larvae…hell no!

His professor basically attacked the delicacy to his disgust! He had to try otherwise the professor would feel he wasted lab money on his plate.

Denoo, what was going through your mind at that point?

At that point I remembered Dr. Kinyuru and his miserable blog. Joyce the gastronomist at his lab and I thought I needed a story of my life too.

My blog made you eat?

 Well, I imagined I needed to encourage you somehow. I had to do it using you as my benchmark. And true to your blog’s enticing sweet confusing words, they tasted great and crunchy.

He got the recipe and we will try it at the kitchen in our lab. We have lot’s of those larvae. They burrow in dung. One only needs to gut and clean. They are quite fatty the method of cooking better avoid too much oil.

What is one thing you learned from that experience?

Despite my earlier and later fears of having a running stomach, this marked my realization that our cultures hold back the fight against malnutrition and famine in Kenya. One can overcome their worst fears if confronted by hard truths though sometimes a little motivation will help.

 I am looking for people with a bug story/experience. Inbox me on insecthunter@gmail.com.

 

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His love for edible insects knew no bounds

This is a tribute to Prof. Alan Yen. The good Professor of Invertebrate Sciences at La Trobe University, Australia, passed away on Monday 20th March 2017. For several months Alan has fought hard, but unfortunately lost the battle with cancer. Alan was like the gigantic baobab tree that birds and animals lived on. He had these massive branches where people and even governments (he was Australian government advisor on something) hung on, and his roots went so deep and wide, voyaging seas and oceans…exuding the sap of scientific ingenuity and valor even to the dustiest places of sub-Saharan Africa.  But death is death. And Alan has slept.

Alan Yen
Prof. Alan Yen

I first met Alan in 2014 at the Conference on Insects to feed the world in the Netherlands, organized by FAO and Wageningen UR. He struck me as easy and outgoing, an impression I affirmed a year later during a study tour in Thailand. We were on a collaborative study visit to Khon Kaen Region to study the successes of cricket farming through the GREEiNSECT project. It’s incredible, something short of a miracle, how a government can support over 20,000 cricket farmers complete with subsides and ready markets.

To be in Khon Kaen, One had to land in Bangkok where we spent the night. That evening, I met Alan. Again. It was at the dinner table. I was running late. I had lost count of time and jetlag was definitely at its peak after flying for an eternity from Nairobi. Someone cracked a joke about my being late and everyone on the table laughed…except me. And the Bangkok dinner began! We didn’t talk much, after all, we had a couple of days to catch up.

Thailand has a way of making people be themselves. Thailand has a warm weather. Thailand is just convenient and Bangkok is a city that never sleeps. You are hungry at 2:43 am? There’s someone around to sell you food. You want to rush to the open food market…to the guy singing

thailandfood2
Food market in Bangkok

about deep fried crickets on the menu? That can be easily arranged at any hour. Need to go shopping at some strange hour? There’s a store open. And in Bangkok, you never have to wait for a taxi…there’s one on your doorstep. Literally! Need to take a bus to Vietnam? There’s one around the corner! Thailand is just easy and I think this made everyone in our team easy, including Alan.

After a couple days shuttling around cricket farms and cricket processors in Khon Kaen, the visit ended. A few sight-seeing episodes were encompassed in the official itinerary as well, including the visit to the cobra village. Everyone in the village has cobra as a pet! Yes. Small cobras. Huge cobras. Sleeping cobras coiled around themselves. Gliding cobras! A dog isn’t man’s best friend in this village. In fact, a dog doesn’t exist here! (That’s a story for another day). Did I mention that Alan had become the official group photographer? He had a nice camera, something not very common with scientists. I must say he was also good with the camera.

Several months later, I received an email. It was from Alan. In his characteristic brief correspondence was a photo attachment with the words, “Hi John, I am still sorting out group photos but I thought I’d send this one to you directly. You looked happy here but I don’t think you were!” He had captured the shot at the cobra village. Boom!

Cobra photo
A cobra on my shoulders: the photo by Alan

Well, fare thee on Alan. You mentioned on many occasions that cultures need to rethink their attitudes to eating insects. And in your own words, “the challenge now is developing technology to farm tens-of-thousands-of-tonnes of insect protein if we are to make an impression on world protein production”. We hope to see your words come true someday. You were the first Editor-in Chief of the Journal of Insects as Food and Feed (JIFF), the pioneering journal dedicated to publishing studies on insects as food and feed, and you were exemplary. You were brilliant! The edible insect’s community and the insectivores at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology,   Kenya will miss you.

Candle lit
Rest in Peace Alan

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Eating insects in Beijing

I call my local guide on the third evening in Beijing. I feel like exploring and he suggests Donghuamen night market located in the northern end of Wangfujing. He is a jolly chap in his 20’s. I had bumped into him on my first evening in a restaurant along Jonguancun Avenue. Sometimes this Karma thing is true…how else do you explain walking into a restaurant and the first thing you see is a guy in a checked shirt, eating a mix of potatoes, beans, chicken, peas, cabbage and rice in a gallon of thick brown broth? The menu immediately sells him out and I salute “mundu wa nyumba”. Opposite him is his friend in another checked shirt eating all those constituents in a gallon of thick brown broth. I must say I didn’t have to pay for my dinner that day…i was home away from home! That’s how I met Denoo my guide…he became the go-to guy. He happens to be a graduate student from Kenya on a UCAS scholarship! God bless China!

It’s easy to confuse the place for your typical food market. The place is always jammed with locals and tourists eating, chewing half mouth, chewing full mouth, talking, taking photos, others amazed by the mass and variety of food in just one 200-meter-long food street landmark. The food stalls are steaming with fresh food. As I get closer to one of them, I noticed that the food was not your typical type. It’s Chinese cuisine mostly. It is a hot spot for daring foodies giving more than what I expected or even bargained for. I realized that my taste buds might never forget this culinary experience.

the-donghuamen-night-market-2
Donghuamen market

So there I was, standing in this small alleyway, an array of unnerving food in front of me, and I had to pick some for dinner. It took me a while I can tell you. I saw it, smelled it, walked past it once, walked past again, clicked away on my new Chinese branded phone though they didn’t quite like the clicking.  I was enthralled. I had harvested, cooked and eaten insects before but I didn’t expect to see the options I had before me. My options were many: cicadas, sea stars, and sea horses, locusts, silk worms, snake, lizard, centipedes, frogs all on a stick!

Well, I was hungry and I was here to experience some new flavors. My first choice went to locusts on a skewer. They didn’t look too bad. Not too adventurous I know but it was a beginning. We eat them where I come from after all. I could go with eating the Cricket as well. I farm millions of those and chew five toasted ones every morning. The snake was alright, the flesh smelled between chicken and octopus. It was not bad, quite flavorful actually. Now, this is when it got interesting! One display got my attention. Scorpions on skewers! When I asked the man behind the counter if they were fresh, he pulled out a bucket from under the table, a big smile on his face. Tens of these little guys were crawling all over.

crickets
Crickets on skewers

I hold the bragging right to being entomophagous in the South of Sahara; a daring edible insect’s enthusiast but NO. Scorpions wouldn’t do not matter what the vendor says. Not even if the vendor told me that frying the scorpions neutralizes their poison and their tail ironically is the most nutritious part rich with omega 3 fats. No! My mind was working 150%, trying to find a good reason to swallow a seahorse on a stick.

Well, I was here for adventure. I settled for sea horse and scorpion after writing my will and safely depositing it with my now legal guide, Denoo. I opened my mouth, and took a good bite. Most were crunchy and tasted a bit like fried chicken and roasted nuts. The rest went down very quickly! Denoo kept wondering what kind of curse had come upon me. He thought I should be taking photos. Only. I came to see not eat. One day he will understand…maybe he will.

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Why worry if you accidentally swallow an insect?

It happens every day. You’re out for a run or biking on the farmland, doing an evening round the fence run in campus and, whoosh, an insect lands in your mouth. The ick factor is high, but can it cause any real harm? Well…swallowing an insect is largely harmless. For real!

Most people get bit or stung by something, and many of

starfried-cricks
Star fried crickets

us even eat a few critters. I am sure I’ve swallowed my fair share of insects. I know you are thinking its gross but it’s just a fact of life. The good thing with me is that I have intentionally swallowed quite a handful too. For the most part, eating a bug isn’t cause for worry. In general, your body will digest arthropods, which include arachnids like spiders, mites and ticks, and insects such as gnats, flies, mosquitoes, fleas and bedbugs, just like any other food. This means that eating a bug now and then probably won’t be a problem for most.

I am one of few who believe that swallowing an occasional live bug adds to their protein, vitamin and minerals intake. For those populations around the world who regularly ingest

marinatec-cricket_watermarked2
Marinated crickets garnished with vegetables of the season

beetles, termites, ants, spiders and other arthropods, eating bugs can be an important source of these essential nutrients. But, it’s a good idea to cook the bugs before eating them in order to generally kill any harmful bacteria and parasites. If you’re going to get serious about eating insects like me, cook it!

I have this amazing colleague at Edible Insects Gastronomy Lab at JKUAT who is a gastronomist. Anything she touches turns to a delicious meal. She is a strong believer in the adage that a delicious meal is only limited by the chefs imagination. Her hands are like this magic wand that turns the most unfoody looking ingredient to a mouth watering delicacy. She has turned insects into dishes out of this world. If foods wear bow ties, hers would wear a red one! I think she can even cook stones or those mean looking railway steels lying idle with envy all over their face as they watch the new standard gauge railway snaking from Mombasa to Nairobi. I think I want to be a railway line in the after life. To just sit there unmoved by the years of merciless elements of weather and human activity!…mmmh

I digressed. Going back to the story…the bottom line is, avoid swallowing uncooked bugs but if you do, the enzymes and acids in your gut will do justice to it!

Happy 2017 bug lovers!

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Cricket dance

September is definitely a very exciting month! I am ecstatic about it all. Day after day a story on crickets is coming up in the Kenyan media. The titles were quite fascinating too!  cricket-dance

Feeling like a movie producer, venturing into an unchartered territory and we are the trail blazer ! The crickets are dancing on print, video and audio media!

  1. Use crickets for better nutrition, urges varsity
  2. Kenyans Turn to Cricket for Food & Nutrition Security
  3. Scientists want Kenyans to consume more crickets for improved nutrition
  4. Eating crickets gives you more iron, protein elements

  5. Wanasayansi wapigia debe ulaji wa nyenje au chenene

  6. Gitoero kia nyenje

cricket-danceThe month is still young…

…am waiting to see what crops up next! Join the fun!

 

The last great hope to save a hungry world

Can you imagine a world in which insects are what’s for dinner? Such a thought is not only remarkable but a reality! I often take an excursion into the world of edible insects of East Africa, technically taking to the front lines of the next big trend in the global food movement.

Child enjoy termites
Eating termites and ugali

Along the way, I sample termites at the Mulembe open market in Kakamega, travel to Bungoma to meet the harvesters and consumers of a local delicacy of fried white ants and even crash a bug-eating party along the Kakamega-Kisumu road. Onyoso, the black ant with a fat belly is a rare delicacy, the men fight for the few remaining…for obvious reasons.

What of the cricket farmers in Siaya and Bondo…a remarkable group of women! Those women. It’s always amusing. What of the cricket farmers in Siaya and Bondo…a remarkable group of women! Those women. It’s always pleasant to meet those women especially if am in the company of Monicah, yule mama wa crickets! They have praises for mwalimu…song and dance erupt from discreet women once word passes that she is around. It always ends with a party of some sort. Crickets are always part of the menu.

Cricket feeders

Farmed crickets

The famous grasshopper, nsenene, in Kampala, Uganda is a spectacle to behold. Millions of tiny little green and brown delicacies flying around. It’s like a public display of barbeque ready to feasted uponWho would have known that nature could conspire against such little things; can’t they just stay back…hide in their little mansions amongst the greeneries of Kampala hills?

Grasshoppers
Nsnene grasshopper

Kagera region in Tanzania adds the twist to the grasshopper dance. The greens and browns are joined by the purples…oh…what a combination of flying colors! They say the purple ones are for the royalty!

Proceedings: International Conference on Enhancing Legislation and Policy on Use of Insects as Food And Feed in East Africa

Conference participants
Conference participants

When the Vic Hotel, Kisumu, opened its doors in 2016, to usher in the International Conference on Legislation and Policy on the Use of Insects as Food and Feed in East Africa, the evidence that the subject has attracted broad interest from research to industry, was laid bare. Participants from all over the globe gathered to assess the progress that has already been made regarding the use of insects as food and feed and to deliberate on the legislative barriers to insects’ value chains. The conference was organised by JKUAT, ICIPE, JOOUST and University of Copenhagen, Denmark under the GREEiNSECT, INSFEED, and EntoFOOD projects with an aim to setting the stage for streamlining policy and legislation framework to support use of edible insects as food and feed in East Africa. The conference attracted scientists and researchers, industry, government and international players of global repute who encouraged researchers to continuously sensitize people on the use of insects. Eighteen (18) post-graduate students from JKUAT, University of Nairobi, Egerton and JOOUST also attended and presented on-going research in edible insects. The Kenyan government was represented by officers from the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture, Kenya Wild Life Services, Kenya Bureau of Standards and National Museum of Kenya among others.

Dr. Kinyuru Presenting
Dr. Kinyuru Presenting at the conference

To set the stage, Dr. John Kinyuru (JKUAT), presented his research work on edible insects. He has been researching on edible insects for over 10 years and his work involves mass production, post-harvest management and processing of insects to acceptable, delicious, nutritious and affordable food products to combat food and nutrition insecurity. He highlighted evidenced-based successes in utilization of edible insects in managing malnutrition in Kenya and Asia. He however noted that, microbial and allergen concerns remain to be a challenge to insect consumption. Through various grants, he has set up a mass production farm for cricket at JKUAT. He is targeting at providing the much-needed protein for both humans and animals.

Addressing the conference on the global perspective of regulatory frameworks for insects as food and feed, the FAO representative based in Rome Italy, Dr. Paul Vantomme, noted that insects for food and feed are important they can improve food security and diversity of diets, protect traditional insect-consumption practices, reduce environmental impacts of livestock production, and create local employment opportunities. Dr. Vantomme observed that increasing urbanization and living standards, Per capita consumption of major food items in developing countries has been increasing from 1961, resulting in increasing demand for meat and other animals’ products and increasing pressure on the environment.

Looking at the African perspective, Mr. Mubangizi, The Managing Director, Uganda National Bureau of Standards noted that in Africa, policies and legislation were formalised during colonial era to replace the unwritten rules that had been passed on from generation to generation orally. In his speech he noted that the insect value chain has limited policy and legislation. The challenge is on legislation to become law to protect insects from extinction and conserve the environment as well as laws that protect the consumers by specifying standards among others.

Dr. Sunday Ekesi and Dr. Subramanian (ICIPE, Kenya) cited that traditional harvesting and poor postharvest handling of insects to be the key contributors to microbial contamination. Insects are good sources of proteins. Crickets, Black soldier fly, House fly are among insects on the focus. JKUAT key interest is on the use of Cricket as a food; the main focus is on studying the nutritional composition and effects of different treatments on the nutrients as well as promoting gastronomy.

Prof. Nanna Roos (University of Copenhagen, Denmark) cited that the use of insects as food could potentially help in the management of the environment. Habitat change, over exploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and environmental change are key factors affecting biodiversity. Dr Helida Oyieke (NMK, Kenya) highlighted that neglected and underutilized Species (NUS) such as insects plays a role in ensuring food and nutrition security, however the NUS are facing extinction. The production of animal products emits the highest amount of greenhouse gases and consequently this has an effect on the environment. The recommendations from the conference to academia was to address knowledge gap in Inventory, Conservation of Bio and genetical diversity, protection of indigenous knowledge, developing of mass rearing technology and nutrition profiling.

From consumer scientist, Prof. Monica Ayieko (JOOUST) and a chef, Roberto Flore of the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen Denmark, edible insects should not only be promoted as a nutritional and environmentally safe food but as good food that should be consumed by all. The campaign should be multidimensional to incorporate the other elements that contribute to sustainability and integration of a diet into a different culture. Mr. Roberto emphasized on the need to build on the traditional knowledge of cultures and societies to get a deeper understanding that the concept of edible insects goes far beyond just an ingredient. The relationship between territories, flavours, culture and human beings provides an important basis while you’re practicing culinary arts.

The food and feed industry too was not left behind. Mr. Glen Courtright- representing the Enviroflight Company in the USA made a presentation on the theme: “Bugs Save the World” Enviroflight started investigating on the use of edible insects in 2009 and currently runs five tall store system for black soldier fly larvae (BSFL). He noted that humans need proteins in their systems and the industry has to provide that. Dr. Marc Kenis, CABI, [Switzerland] representing PROteINSECT project funded by the European Commission in Ghana, noted great success in farming houseflies and Black Solder Fly (BSF) for feed. Mr. Ensor Owen represented Sanergy Company that deals with commercial Black Solder Fly (BSF) Opportunities in Kenya. He noted that Sanergy is rearing BSF intended for use as animal feed protein. The key market segments for animal protein are feed millers. Demand for protein used in animal feed is worth $290 million and is still growing at 6% annually (CAGR 06-13).  He observed that BSF larvae is a high-quality protein source, directly comparable to Omena. But Omena rarely meet KEBS standards due to adulterations, including impurities like shells, sand etc. so BSFL is even better.

Representatives from AgriProtein Company – a nutrient recycler that produces sustainable animal feed ingredients, lipids and fertilizer in South Africa, also made their case in favour of insects’ value chains at the conference. A representative from Unilever also supported the relevance of edible insects to their nutrition agenda and committed to work closely the stakeholders in the edible insect’s value chain.

Graduate students
Edwin, Joyce, Alex, Dorothy

Mr. Erwin Beckers (The Netherland), representing the Flying Food Project – that has set up a cricket farms in Kenya and Uganda noted that the project covers along the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya and Uganda. He explained that the purpose of the project is to build business on edible insects. The business model combines the common consumption of insects with inclusive business i.e., include people with lower incomes as producers, sales people or consumers. He noted that there are about 300 small scale cricket farmers in each of the two countries. These farmers produce roughly 3000 kg of cricket per month – mostly exported to external market in the Netherlands, as the farmers benefit from increased incomes. This, he explained, is a systematic and standardized (all farmers do the same things in the same way and skills), production system. The smallest scale is 30 crates (for economic viability).

 

The conference ended by drafting and releasing recommendation to various stakeholders. The recommendation to the government was to recognize the potential of insects as feed and food for national strategies regarding food, feed, and nutrition security; create an enabling policy and legislative environment for the use of insects as food and feed with clear regulations governing the sector. The government should also take a leading role in the policy debate on the use of insects as food and feed. The Universities and other training institutions should also include edible insects as part of the curriculum.

Story contributed by:  Alex Ndiritu, Carol Kipkoech, Joyce Muniu

Dedicated to sharing information on edible insects

 Demand for animal protein in developing countries is predicted to double by 2050 putting pressure on protein sources for food and animal feed, such as soya and fish. More sustainable protein sources are urgently needed. Entomophagy – the consumption of insects as food – is traditionally practiced in many cultures, also in Africa, and is mainly carried out through harvesting the insects from the wild. However, the potential of insects as a protein source is still untapped, and the answer to unleashing their potential lies in domestication and large-scale production. Such an industry is still in its infancy, but is a high prospective new sector. Insects are highly efficient converters of food into body weight, are highly nutritious and are an environmentally friendly protein source.