Palm weevil larvae are a source of protein and iron while many Ghanaian children aged under two are anaemic. (Aspire)

Bugs on the menu as palm weevil protein hits the pan

Chris Matthews
Larvae may not be to everyone's taste but they could be key to easing food shortages and boosting farmers' incomes.

Inside a stone room in a village near the Ghanaian city of Kumasi, Dominic Kyei Manu proudly shows off eight buckets covered in mesh netting in which palm weevil larvae are busy feeding. The project is a departure for the 40-year-old cassava and sheep farmer, but he says it is already putting money in his pocket, and a tasty protein on his plate.

"I know that when I do this I can create money from it but it is very different from my normal farming," he says."I can sell it in this community and even in Kumasi – many people will like it."

Kyei Manu is one of four people farming palm weevil larvae in Donyina village under a scheme run by Aspire Food Group, which operates Ghana's first commercial insect farm. Aspire wants to bring insects from the culinary margins into the mainstream to address food shortages, as well as to boost people's iron intake.

Kyei Manu is something of a brand ambassador among people who are more used to a diet of starchy yam, cassava and plantain."I always eat some with my family. It is sweet and healthy – sometimes we fry it and sometimes we eat it with a soup," he says.

Nevertheless, although weevils and other insects such as termites, grasshoppers and dung beetles are eaten in rural Ghana, those advocating a more bug-rich diet may face an uphill battle among urban dwellers.

"When we were growing up, some species of insects were regularly harvested as part of diets but with time these things faded away," says Kwame Afreh-Nuamah, a professor in  entomophagy at the University of Ghana. "Especially with the middle classes, some are not familiar with these things and they think people eat them because of poverty."

But he is confident attitudes can be changed."The potential is really great. If we can revive the knowledge base to get people to appreciate the fact that they are edible and nutritional, I think it [eating insects] will come back and be accepted."

Their crickets, your protein bar
Aspire was founded by students from Canada's McGill University in 2013, and launched the Ghana project last year.

In the United States, the company has a quarter hectare cricket farm, which sells wholesale to a handful of restaurants. Retailers including Exo and Bitty Foods use Aspire's cricket powder to make protein bars and flour. In Mexico, Aspire is also breeding grasshoppers.

Co-founder Shobhita Soor says the aim is to promote insects that are already popular – around the world some two billion people eat insects. People already consume palm weevils in other African countries, including Benin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon, and across much of Latin America and Southeast Asia.

With the global population expected to top nine billion by 2050, and with arable land shrinking, Aspire says bugs could be a food staple.

"We are not here to change the way people eat or tell them what to eat, we are here to provide a desired source of protein and iron in a much more accessible way. Palm weevil is a great source of iron and protein," Soor says, noting that anaemia is one of the most significant nutritional deficiencies in Ghana.

Almost 20% of maternal deaths in Ghana are caused by iron-deficiency anaemia, 76% of children under two are anaemic and more than four in 10 women aged 15 to 49 suffer from low blood iron levels, according to the 2014 Ghana Demographic Health Survey.

Aspire says edible insects can provide 96% of the recommended daily allowance of iron compared with only 21% found in every 100g of meat. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says insects also contain six times more calcium than meat.

Stiff competition 
Aspire opened a breeding facility in Ghana in 2014, and now works with about 500 smallholder farmers, providing free equipment and training to breed the larvae. The aim is to provide a new source of income, but also to diversify local diets.

Known locally as akokono, palm weevil larvae are harvested from felled palm trees, which farmers tap for their sap to make palm wine or the popular home-brewed akpeteshie. In Fumuasa, a small town 10km south of Kumasi, Jacob Anankware and his team are monitoring about 50 000 weevils in buckets that fill an airy warehouse.

"Certain palm trees are too old; after 35 years they no longer bear fruit and so farmers cut them down and when they do they tap the palm wine, and then the trees become useless," Anankware, who is Aspire's Ghana director, says. The adult palm weevils are fed a mixture of palm wine and rotted palm trees.

"The adult palm weevil goes to lay eggs, which then hatch into the palm larvae, which are continuously fed, and will grow to be juicy enough to eat."

Eventually, Aspire hopes the project will become self-sustaining, with farmers able to work alone. But there are obstacles.

The supply of palm trees is declining as many felled trees are bought by alcohol manufacturers. The use of pesticides on plantations kills off the weevils.

"The opportunities for product development are limitless. We are thinking about a canned larvae akin to canned fish. The shelflife then becomes stable so you can really distribute it much further in the country," she says.

"We definitely think it is the food of the future. I think the economics of food and the global constraints on the environment speak to that."

This feature was originally published as part of The Guardian's Global Development project.

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