in the spotlight

African crickets: investing in new sources of protein

11 April 2016 • 4 min reading time

In Kenya and Uganda, 45 farmers are breeding insects for the production of protein. It is expected that at the end of 2017 approximately 600 small-scale commercial cricket farms will be in operation as part of a food supply chain that ranges from production to consumption.

The increasing prosperity in developing countries and the growing global population have gone hand in hand with an increase in the demand for animal protein. Insects are a good and sustainable alternative to meat and fish, and the idea of keeping insects as 'farm animals' is steadily growing. This is the case in Africa as well. Senior project leader Erwin Beckers of the Flying Food project visited East Africa recently for the second time this year. In early March, he attended a conference and visited several small-scale cricket farms in Kenya together with radio reporter Maarten Bleumers.


Value chain

The Flying Food project was launched in Africa in May 2013. According to Beckers, the goal is to found a new value chain that is currently lacking. "This is about creating an entire chain for the commercial farming and commercial processing of insects as food for local human consumption." Eleven partners from the Netherlands, Kenya, and Uganda work together on this project that is coordinated by TNO and chiefly sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Partners in the Flying Food project are VENIK, Kreca, NGN Pro-Active, Nostimos B.V., M. Ruig en Zonen B.V., Jagran B.V., ICCO, BoPInc and HAS University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, JOOUST University, ADS, MIXA Foods and Beverages and KBL in Kenya and ICCO ROCEA in Uganda.

Insects as delicacies

Between 30 and 35 farmers in the Nyanza region in Kenya and ten farmers in the Masaka region in Uganda are participating in this pilot project. Both these eastern African regions border Lake Victoria. "People in this area are used to eating seasonal insects like grasshoppers and termites that are only available once or twice a year as a type of delicacy," explains Beckers.

"People in this area are used to eating seasonal insects like grasshoppers and termites"

The cricket as a farm animal

"What makes Flying Foods unique is that insects are kept as farm animals, which make an alternative source of protein readily available all year round. This is what makes our project innovative."

The house cricket

The common house cricket was selected as the perfect insect for farming. This cricket looks like a grasshopper but is easier to breed. A female cricket produces about 200 eggs. When a cricket hatches, it is the size of a grain of rice and it will shed its skin seven times in its life cycle. In Africa, it takes twelve weeks for a cricket to reach maturity, by which time it will be about 2.5 cm long.

Breeding crates

The crickets are kept in grey plastic crates with air vents that can house up to two thousand adult crickets. Two-thirds of a crate is filled with vertical hiding holes where the crickets will go to feed when they are given water, fresh pumpkin leaves, or cassava leaves. The food given to crickets is made up of waste products from regular crop production.

Hiding holes

"In the Netherlands, these hiding holes are made of cardboard," explains Beckers. "These are thrown away after the production cycle. But because labour is cheaper in Africa, we have opted to produce more sustainable hiding holes that can be cleaned after every production cycle. This allows a crate to be used for about 25 years. We use the knowledge of our Dutch insect breeders and modify this knowledge to be applied to an African setting."


Teaching entrepreneurship

"The teachers that are trained by our group are there to teach the farmers entrepreneurial skills. The farmers, who are mostly women, need to learn to think in terms of production. It is economically most viable to harvest the crickets before their final moulting, as this saves two weeks of feed. After ten weeks you can then start the next breeding cycle. Mature crickets also have wings which makes them less attractive for consumption."

Breeding fifteen times more crickets

The smallest commercially viable unit for a farmer consists of thirty boxes that can be stacked. "Stacking the crates allows fifteen times as many crickets to be bred per square metre than in a system of concrete boxes as is used in Thailand," Beckers continues. "The breeding crates are placed in a separate mud hut with a corrugated roof. If the farmer has a larger house, the crates are often placed in the living room. If the crates are well-looked after, there is hardly any smell."

As it says in the Bible...

"This year we will be dedicating ourselves to both the processing and sales of insect protein. We need to convince everyone that this is a great food product and it helps if people are told this by their teachers, doctors, or other health-care professionals. It even says in the Bible in Leviticus 11:22 that you can eat four types of insects, including the cricket. This is a bonus as a large part of the population there is Christian."

Innovation for Development

The Flying Food project fits perfectly within the innovation strategy for alternative protein sources and within the TNO Innovation for Development programme. Through this programme, TNO contributes to healthy foods, entrepreneurship, and wages in developing countries, as well as creating opportunities for Dutch companies to help develop market-focused solutions.

"The Flying Food project fits perfectly within the innovation strategy for alternative protein sources"


Funding for upscaling

"We are currently working on the first upscaling of this project," says Beckers. "At the end of 2017, we want to have 300 cricket farms in both Kenya and Uganda. A breeding unit of 30 crates costs 600 euros, and microloans are only given once the novelty has passed. So if there are any businesses or organizations in the Netherlands that would like make a contribution to Flying Food they can contact me directly."

The radio reports are scheduled to air on 3 May and 4 May on the Dutch radio programme De Ochtend (KRO-NCRV); NPO Radio 1 9:30 AM - 12:00 noon. These times are subject to change.