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

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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