Why locust invasion should be a blessing

BY JAVAN BWIRE

They came, perched and spread. From Isiolo to Meru, and now in Kirinyaga. Their itinerary is unkown. Their movement is seemingly unstoppable and their eating habits; an insatiable appetite for green cover, is immeasurable. 

The farmers are horrified. The National Government is terrified. It is miffed   perhaps because of frustration on the best way to deal with the locusts that lavishly feast on every green leaves and leave behind leafless plants, tree stumps and agonizing farmers. 

Meanwhile, former Cabinet Secretary Agriculture, who was expected to think creatively and come up with effective ways of solving agricultural problems and challenges such as the locust invasion, sat in his office and asked farmers to send him pictures of anything they suspected to be locusts for confirmation, maybe after a thorough scientific research and lab experiments by the government expertise. Ironically, they are unable to control those they’ve already confirmed to be locusts. 

The best they have done so far is to deploy police officers to the invaded areas, armed to the teeth with whistles and tear gas canisters. Perhaps our government researchers are yet to discover that insects carry out gaseous exchange through spiracles that, in most cases, have no mucous membranes thus can’t be irritated by tears gas. Insects have compound eyes with no tear glands. But journalists will be zooming those compound eyes to show the nation how police officers conquered, bombard and publicly humiliated the locusts leaving them defenselessly shedding tears and, the government officials will be nodding their heads and congratulating the police triumphantly. 

Insects have exoskeleton, which makes it difficult for pesticides to penetrate into their body tissues. More so, they have a short life cycle hence can multiply very fast. Besides aerial spraying of pesticides on the locusts causing both air and soil pollution, it kills other useful microorganisms and destroy their habitats. Remember this is a month in which we are experiencing heavy rainfalls in most parts of the country. Should it rain in the invaded areas just after spraying the locusts; they are likely to undergo mutation and become resistant to the pesticides. Why waste a lot of money doing this in a country where many are starving?

When we were young, the big grasshoppers used to be a very nice meal. Anyone who grew up in western region of this country in 1980s and 1990s will tell you how we trekked for kilometers and spent better parts of our days in the forests, hills and elephant grass looking for odalala, the famous locusts. 

In my home town, Muyafwa, Busia Kenya we had various groups of boys formed on basis of age sets, clans or families that went deep into thick forests and maize plantations to look for odalala. I recall, with nostalgia, how we quietly and swiftly moved upon spotting odalala gnawing at a leaf. How we chased those grasshoppers with sticks and stones until they gave in and fell on the ground carrying all their legs up defenselessly and motionlessly. I cannot forget to mention the experience and skills we had in making odalala traps from a certain type of grass that commonly grows in the region. 

Besides odalala we also had esike. You made a killing if you came back from hunting with even a single esike. Esike was a grasshopper almost as big as a weaverbird. Mostly they were found in the elephant grass that wasn’t so friendly to our jigger invaded toes. Esike had broad yellowish wings and could fly for even a kilometer without perching. That is why we needed sticks and catapults to shoot them in the air. 

Whenever we returned home with few odalala or esike we went to our farms in the evening, around 7pm to look for exotic crickets (amayenje) that dig up holes and stayed underground during the day to avoid dehydration and unnecessary attacks. They came out in the evening to feed and excrete, we could easily tell its waste from other insects’. They produced a sound almost similar to that of a hissing cobra. How we used to roast those insects in hot ashes and destroy mountains of ugali with them is an experience that will never ever escape from my memory, not even in my late 90s. 

Nutrition 

In some African countries such as Congo, Nigeria and South Africa, insects form 5-10% of the proteins consumed according to Consumption, indigeneous knowledge and cultural values of the lakefly species within the Lake Victoria region – Ayieko and Oriaro, 2008. However, nutritional value of insects differs depending on their metamorphic stages. Generally, components of insects as per the International Network of Food System (INFOODS, 1984) include proteins, fats and fibres. 

Proteins are building blocks and from them enzymes and hormones are formed. Chitin, a derivative of glucose, which is an insoluble fibre derived from exoskeleton play a vital role in defense against parasitic infection and some allergic conditions. In addition, fibre adds bulk to food and prevents constipation (Muzzarelli et al, 2001).

Many edible insects, according to Rumpold and Schlüter, (2013) provide satisfactory amounts of energy and proteins and meet amino acid requirements for human beings, are high in monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fatty acids and are rich in micronutrients such as copper, iron, phosphorus, manganese, zinc and riboflavin also known as vitamin B2. Vitamins B1 and B2 act as coenzymes and offer crucial protection against infections and can only occur in foods of animal origin such as locusts (Bukkens, 2005). 

Micronutrient deficiencies are more rampant in developing countries, of which Kenya is part of, and, can have adverse health consequences, contribute to impairment in growth, immune function, mental and physical development and reproductive outcomes that cannot be nutritionally reversed. Consumption of whole insect body generally boosts nutritional content as it provides higher micronutrients than eating individual body parts (N. Roos, Personal Communication, 2012).

On the other, hand mineral salts that are readily available in insects such as locusts (Oonincx et al, 2010) play very vital roles in biological processes. It is also important to note that iron content in locusts varies between 8-20mg/100g of dry weight depending on their diet, consumption of such insects will therefore prevent anemia. 

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO), 2001 flagged iron deficiency as the world’s most common and widespread nutritional disorder. In developing countries such as Kenya, one in two pregnant women and about 40% of preschool children are believed to be anemic. Inadequate supply of iron to human body causes impaired physical and cognitive development, increase risks of morbidity in children, poor pregnancy and reduced work productivity in adults. All these can be reduced by simply practicing entomophagy (eating of insects).

If the people in the affected regions have their own cultural beliefs against entomophagy; why then can’t the Government harvest these insects without the use of pesticides and supply them to poultry farmers as chicken feeds?

Processing

The Government should consider planting a temporary locusts processing factory in Isiolo or anywhere near the invaded areas and start processing them in earnest, for consumption in western region and other parts of the country where they can be well utilized. We could as well export some to Japan, China, Mexico, Thailand, India, Congo and Nigeria which countries are well known to exercise entomophagy. By so doing we could get foreign exchange, which we could be used to repay the burdensome SGR loan or carry out development projects.

 Alternatively, if the Government and the people in the affected region have their own cultural beliefs against entomophagy; why then can’t the Government find a way of harvesting these insects, without the use of pesticides, and supply them to poultry farmers as chicken feeds? Will that cost more millions than what they are spending now?

 Let us view the coming of locusts to this country as a blessing, not a calamity; as a source of employment not disappointment.   

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