Collaborative Research with ICIPE:

Edible Insects in East Africa

Shigemi Yagi

More than 500 insect species are used for human consumption in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. In Africa, many species of insects have been used as traditional foods among indigenous people and have played an important role in the history of human nutrition. Many insects usually considered as crop pests such as locusts, grasshoppers, weevils and some termite species have been used as important food sources. Interviews with 9 main Kenyan ethnic groups and field surveys in western Kenya revealed that at least 8 insect families representing 6 orders are eaten. The major orders of edible insects include Isoptera (termites), Orthoptera (locusts, grasshoppers, crickets), Coleoptera (beetles), Hymenoptera (honey bees), Lepidoptera (moths) and Diptera (lakeflies). The most common edible insects are the termites which are highly appreciated by practically every ethnic group in Kenya. The sexual winged forms (reproductive forms) of termites are frequently caught for food.

Our research in the Maragoli area in western Kenya has shown that villagers can easily distinguish species and the emergence patterns of termites. They apply various methods for catching termites. In one method, they build a tent-like structure consisting of branches and leaves to cover some of the emergence holes (Photo 1). By closing the other holes, the termites have to emerge from the holes in the tent structure which has an opening on one side to which the flying termites are attracted by sunlight, artificial light or moonlight. Near this opening, a receptacle is placed to collect the termites. In another method they introduce a light source inside a bucket lined with wet slippery banana leaves, and then the bucket is placed near an active mound. Attracted by the light, termites drop in the bucket. In the dry season, termites can be induced to come out when stimulated by fumes of smoke from burnt dried leaves of specific wild plants or the slow rhythmic vibrations created by striking stones or by beating a large piece of wood with two sticks. A similar drumming technique for collecting termites has been reported in Uganda.

Photo1 : A termite trap along the road in Maragoli area in western Kenya.

Termites are prepared in various ways for eating. In Enzaro village, Maragoli, it is popular to lightly fry the termites in their own fat over a low heat, add a little salt and sometimes remove the wings. Fried winged termites are tasty after being dried in the sun and they can be consumed for a rather long period of time. In some areas, termites are used as gifts for marriage. Raw termites are also frequently eaten. In some areas of western Kenya, sun-dried termites are packed in various containers and sold during the rainy season in the local food markets. They are sometimes transported over long distances to urban markets of East African large cities such as Kisumu, Kampala or even Nairobi (Photo 2).

Photo2 : Termites sold in an open market in Kampala, Uganda.

Our field surveys, suggest that termites play an important role in daily food consumption in the Maragoli area in the rainy season, when there is a shortage of maize supply. We concluded that the termites are especially valuable for children and pregnant women which require a high calory diet and nutritious food. Research should be further promoted to create an awareness about the importance of insects as a good and cheap source of lipids and animal protein.