Creating value around Africa's locust plague

Laura Stanford, The Founder of the Bug Picture

The above image showing locust infestation in Africa is from South China Morning Post

The Bug Picture is a regenerative agriculture company that is leading several initiatives to address the environmental challenges posed by such swarms in east Africa, through the sustainable use of insects – Thebugpicture.com

About The Bug Picture

We work with insects to solve environmental challenges, one of such challenges being the locust infestation that has been ripping through the Horn of Africa since the end of 2019. It is not a new problem and viewed from a global scale would have been the largest environmental and social disaster in 2020 had COVID-19 not happened. So, the Horn of Africa is dealing with the Covid pandemic as well as a locust infestation.

 

The challenge

The locust infestation is one of those biblical moments. The plague of locusts is destroying people’s lives in the Horn of Africa in areas where there is predominantly subsistent farming, so the plague is destroying people’s lives and livelihood. 

At the beginning of last year when we started getting reports of the bugs crossing into Kenya, we saw interviews of small-scale farmers who live from hand to mouth and saw the dread in them as they awaited the arrival of these swarms. These farmers do not have the insurance policy to come through on the other side, so this devastates them and their ability to prosper and rise out of poverty. Based on the practice of doing, I thought of a way of helping these individuals and that was the birth of the project.

There was nothing that could go wrong with this project really, we had three success criteria: First, could locust be harvested, second, were people interested in being mobilized and paid to harvest the locust and third, was it possible to include locusts in the formulation of animal feeds? The answer was yes to all three. We kind of knew, but we wanted to be sure.

There was nothing that could go wrong with this project really

Interim results from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology where we are running trials on chicken, on different inclusion ratios from 25 through to 100% replacement of Soy, shows that we are having better growth results than Soy. These results constantly reiterate the viability of the project. 

If we could scale what we are currently doing, it will be a leading response, alongside the FAO spraying, in order to reduce the size of the damage caused by locust while at the same time putting money in the pockets of the harvesters.

 

Human consumption

Currently, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations FAO is only allowing the harvesting of the bugs as a protein source for use in animal feed formulation. But the FAO may at some point in the future authorize the use of suitable bio-pesticide that allows for the locust to be harvested for human consumption.

 

Source of Income

Because we pay per weight though, a lot of factors do come into play. On a good harvest day, for instance, one where everybody was harvesting, one of the family harvested 180kg which translated to more than $90, which is more than a household lives on for a month. So, there is that ability for the farmers to earn enough to last them for the next month.

 

Problems of Farm boundary lines

Not really. Because the insects migrate across boundary lines, there is an understating that at a minimum depleting the locust gives your farm a better chance to thrive.

 

Danger of wild animals

Wildlife is indeed a reality; we’ve seen elephants and even lions in the area during harvest. Elephants can be sighted easily, not so much with the lions, so you want to be extra careful.

 

Scalability

We are creating a comprehensive learning platform from this experience so that others can build on it. We want all this knowledge to be open source and if people can build it on it, better. So, learning and knowledge of this experience is key and then improving how we disseminate this knowledge so that people can access it easily.

Also, we are looking at technology partners who can work with forecasting what the locust is going to do so that instead of being reactionary, the farmers can be better prepared, they can for example harvest crops that are nearly ripe for harvest.

We can also train the farmers on not just harvesting but also on how to process these insects into feeds themselves.

 

Predicting locust swarms

We are in talks with Climacell doing the predictive analysis and we want to see how that progresses. They will be helping predict where the locust will go next with pinpoint accuracy. We can then use this information to deploy learning and guidance in locations where supply chains are nonexistent. The farmers will then be able to at least harvest and compost the locust, reduce its impact on the crop, feed their animals and then feed themselves.

 

Frequency of swarm occurrences

While we wish that these swarms do not occur, it’s the nature of nature that these kinds of things are going to become more prevalent, and insects are going to increasingly swarm due to climate change. We, therefore, need to equip the people and create a business model on the ground to make them able to react and change their perceptions of what these swarms are and can be, a seasonal crop opportunity, some sort of silver lining whenever the swarms occur.

Though not necessarily a sustainable livelihood alternative for the farmers, this business model we are creating allows everybody to win. The person doing the harvesting wins, those doing the processing win because they’ve created insect meals that get sold to the animal feed miller, and then the miller wins by creating a product that has an existing value in the market.

 

Sustainability

The level of soya and fish meal going into our animal feed is not sustainable so we will be rethinking what is needed to create the animal feed in a sustainable way and that is why we have ongoing projects like black larvae feed in Rwanda.

This is the shift we want to see in the world, where people who are already farming insects for protein will already have the system in place to deal with locust swarms when they occur because they have the knowledge, equipment and value chain to support insect meals.

This piece is based on our conversation with Laura Stanford, the CEO of The Bug Picture. It was edited and summarized for brevity and clarity by Anthony Atigari, Executive Director of Canada Africa Business Forum

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