By Aaron Ross
KINSHASA (Reuters) – There is no shortage of protein in Kinshasa's Gambela Market, from cows to antelope & snakes. But it is the blue & silver bowls brimming with twitching crickets, termites & slithering mealworms that do the briskest trade.
Experts hope that the love of edible insects in Democratic Republic of Congo may hold the key to tackling widespread hunger among its roughly 65 million people by scaling up a millennia-old consumption habit.
p> Six-and-a-half million people live in food insecurity in the giant central African country, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), largely due to low agricultural productivity & persistent violence in its volatile east.
Edible insects, which are just starting to win acceptance in the West, have long been one of Congo's most popular dishes. Often served as bar food or on special occasions, they are grilled & commonly served with hot pepper, lemon & onions.
"This is the main food of Congolese," said Marie-Colette Bena, who sells clothing at the market, "I'm proud to eat that food."
The average household in the capital Kinshasa consumes approximately 300 grams of caterpillar a week, according to a U.N. study yet insect supplies can be seasonal & are generally more expensive than other types of food.
In Kinshasa a kilogramme of crickets costs approximately $50, more than twice the price of beef.
Congo's environment ministry & the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) hope to capitalize on Congo's affinity for the crunchy fare with a new programme to promote insect cultivation, a plan that could make them more widely available & bring down prices.
The project, due to commence in October, will train two hundred people – most of them women – in western Congo to cultivate caterpillars & crickets. Laurent Kikeba, who oversees the project for the FAO, said it would be the first of its kind in the world.
A national centre to promote insect harvesting will be launched & the FAO will work with the government to craft legal norms to regulate the sector.
Though the FAO estimates that Congolese consume 14,000 tonnes of insects each year, Kikeba said there are no farms specifically dedicated to raising them. Instead, they are collected by hacking down trees or digging deep into the soil.
Kikeba said that year-round farming could dramatically increase production, currently limited by seasonal variations in the availability of different species.
"For the fight against malnutrition, this is an ideal food," said Paul Monzambe, a professor of agronomy at the National Pedagogic University (UPN) in Kinshasa, who is collaborating on the project. "The crisis is such that we must think now of all possible approaches."
In a 2013 report, the FAO hailed insect cultivation as a practical & environmentally-friendly tool to boost food production as supply struggles to keep pace with global population growth.
The report notes insects are bountiful, widely consumed & contain high levels of protein, fat, vitamins, fibre & minerals. They tend to require less feed & yield more meat per kilogramme than traditional protein sources.
Insects can moreover be raised in confined spaces with little capital investment, lowering barriers to entry for women, who struggle to access land & credit, the report said.
Increased production should start to drive down prices, allowing Congolese to consume more of their preferred delicacies. Thatâ€™s music to Monzambe's ears.
"I am a huge consumer," he laughs. "I can't go a week without eating them!"
Democratic Republic of Congo