Eat and be eaten: Turning locusts into profit and protein meal

Billions of locusts devouring entire crops on their way through Kenya threaten to bring on a famine crisis. A new project offers an innovative solution 

By Caroline Ryberg Albæk

Not only the Kenyan sky is obscured by billions of red and yellow locusts. So is the hope of a sustainable future in the shadow of these marauding insects. This outlook has plagued the country for about a year as it sees the worst locust swarms for more than 70 years.

The huge swarms reproduce exponentially. There could be 500 times as many locusts in just a few months as the numbers currently eating their way through the fields.

Harmful toxins

Day after day, the government and residents spray chemicals and pesticides to end the agricultural plague. But the poisonous drops falling on Kenyan fields are causing a similar threat by themselves.

Apart from the locusts’ extermination, pesticides also harm both animals and humans on the ground, pollute scarce water resources and make the fields barren for years to come.

The detrimental effects of both locusts and pesticides are exacerbated by the fact that they are ravaging one of the world’s most impoverished areas.

A struggling population 

Bjørn Bang Jakobsen is an adviser at DanChurchAid and visited the Turkana region on the border between Kenya and Ethiopia in 2020. Here he experienced how climate change affects the area:

“In the beginning of 2020, the locusts had not yet attacked the Turkana region, and it was frankly also the last thing the locals needed. The area is among the places in the world that are hardest hit by climate change,” says Bjørn Bang Jakobsen and continues:

“Several years of drought have killed most animals. The harvest fails year after year because the rain does not occur or because the rain comes so fiercely and briefly that the whole area gets flooded. Now the grasshoppers are eating the remaining crops, and I hardly dare to think about how the families I met are doing with even less food than they had before.

From plague to protein meal

But now, a new project aims to end the locust plague while providing locals an alternative source of income. DanChurchAid collaborates with The Bug Picture, an innovative regenerative agriculture company, about this initiative to turn the looming disaster into a business opportunity.

Therefore, a mobile team of food experts is currently driving around the Turkana region in pursuit of the ravaging locusts to teach local farmers how to capture the greedy insects.

Eat and be eaten

Once the farmers have captured a sufficient quantity of locusts, they sell the insects to factories, where they are dried and pulverized into protein meal. This is a nutritious food source that is well suited for animal feed - such as chickens and pigs.

Meanwhile, the farmers can spend the extra income on food and medicine.

This method is a much more sustainable alternative to spreading chemicals and pesticides, which, like the locusts, threatens the local harvest potential.

The plague has become a source of income

Leading the innovative project in Kenya is the founder of The Bug

Picture, Laura Stanford. She says that the Kenyan farmers in Turkana already have great success in filling their nets with large red and yellow insects.

A simple method for combating the swarming plague:
  • Local farmers harvest the locusts in fine-mesh breathable nets
  • The harvest is delivered to a center where the insects are checked for visible infections
  • The insects are weighed, and farmers are paid immediately via mobile transfer
  • The catch of grasshoppers is transported to a processing center, where they are killed, dried, and ground into flour.

“The swarms are getting smaller, and the money even lands in the pockets of the people who are most affected by the locust swarms. It’s quite beautiful,” says Laura Stanford.

With the support of Denmark’s development cooperation, Danida, farmers receive 50 Kenyan shillings for every kilo of locust they capture and sell for protein meal production.

So far, the most industrious farmer has harvested 87 kg of locusts over a single night earning him about USD 40, which can feed a family for up to 10 days in rural Kenya.

The swarms are reduced

To this date, a total of 1.3 tons of locusts have been harvested in Kenya.

“That equates to 650,000 locusts being harvested,” says Laura Stanford and continues:

“If half of the 650,000 locusts we have caught are females, each laying 240 eggs, then the project has so far reduced the potential population of locusts by 78 million insects.”

72% of a locusts’ total weight consists of protein, making them an excellent raw material for animal feed in an area where lush green fields are few and far between.

A path to sustainable food

Laura Stanford hopes to be able to disseminate the project to other more extensive parts of the world. Not only to help locals for the time being but also to inspire a more sustainable production of protein foods in the future.

“We need to rethink our food production to stop climate change, and this use of locusts can hopefully inspire people to see insects as a resource,” she says and continues:

“With support from DanChurchAid and Danida, we are in a position where we can speak to organizations in the UN system. We are fully focused on searching for funding partners so that we can upscale this approach.”

The project was launched in December 2020 and is currently funded until the end of March 2021.