Talash Huijbers was planning on farming fish in her native Kenya. The tilapia species, to be exact. Today, however, she supplies insect protein from black soldier flies to four large animal feed mills. Her company, InsectiPro, is also testing the market’s appetite for dried crickets.
It started with Huijbers’ realisation that in Kenya, tilapia farming was difficult to run as a profitable venture despite the country’s ideal conditions. The main reason is the high cost of fish feed, which makes up between 60-80% of the production cost of fish in East Africa, as opposed to 30-50% in Europe. This is because of the shortage of protein sources like fishmeal and soy in Kenya. Huijbers researched alternative options and saw the potential in bugs.
To make the proposed venture feasible, Huijbers needed to find customers for her insect protein. And so, one day in October 2018, Huijbers, dressed in a somewhat dirty white T-shirt and gumboots from being on her father’s farm earlier, walked into the offices of the largest feed miller in Kenya and declared to the production manager that she had a protein alternative.
“As a cocky 23-year-old, I casually asked: ‘What would your potential order be?’. To this, he calmly responded that the company would take 500 tonnes per month, immediately,” she remembers. “I walked out of there, calling my dad and telling him that we were starting the very next day!”
Setting up production
Huijbers’s father grows garden plants for export to Europe and offered her one acre of land on his farm. She funded the venture with her own money and financial support from family members who believed in her business pitch. The company has now grown to produce one tonne of product from its black soldier fly operations daily, as well as between 100-200kg of dried crickets a month.
“I am probably the most productive smallholder farmer in Africa,” she jokes. From that one acre, the company does US$1,000 to $2,000 worth of product per day.
InsectiPro began operations with black soldier fly production, obtaining its first colony from the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi. The company processes the flies into three products: black soldier fly meal (the protein component for animal feed made from the defatted fly), frass (organic fertiliser made from the left-over product after growing the larvae), and chitin (a natural polymer found in the exoskeleton of the flies and used in the pharmaceutical industry).
Two years later, a supplier of nutritional products for school feeding programmes visited the facility and inquired about insect protein for their products. Though InsectiPro was not growing insects for human consumption at the time, it secured the order and began producing crickets shortly after.
The company, which currently employs 82 people, has already established satellite farm sites next to large-scale manufacturers that produce unwanted organic waste. “It is a decentralised model. We take ourselves closer to the waste, 80% of which we get for free. For most large corporates it is an attractive narrative where they can state that they’ve gone from waste dumping to upcycling,” she says.
Farming crickets for food security and nutrition
Eating crickets has been a tradition for thousands of years. They are a high-protein food source, with studies showing they can contain up to 73% protein. Huijbers notes that only 20g of crickets, or a handful, is needed daily to meet one’s nutritional needs.
InsectiPro grows crickets in stackable crates, utilising the space-saving benefits of insect farming. Each female cricket can lay 300-400 eggs over a period of two to three weeks. After 10 days, the crickets are moved to feeding trays and are ready for harvesting after five weeks. They are then frozen, thawed, and baked for consumption.
Currently, the company offers three cricket protein products. The first is a crunchy snack called Chirrup’s, made from cricket flour, which is available in four flavors (barbecue, plain, caramel cinnamon, and salt and vinegar) and sold in colourful 20g packets with playful branding featuring an illustrated cricket character engaging in different activities. Chirrup’s can be found on Greenspoon.co.ke, an e-commerce platform for health products in Kenya. Additionally, Insectipro produces a cricket powder under the name PET and a porridge that is used for feeding schemes.
“I find the cricket side of the business very stimulating, creatively,” she says. “We are working with chefs all across the country, encouraging and daring them to put it on their menu. We are testing different products.”
Eating insects is a growing trend in Europe, while in many parts of Africa it is a cultural norm. Huijbers states that the company has received export requests, but the administrative and paperwork requirements make it unviable at this time. As the industry of insect farming for human consumption is relatively new, internationally recognised standards are not yet fully established. InsectiPro has obtained certification from the local bureau of standards and is currently focusing on regional markets. It has already appointed a Ugandan CEO and will expand there in 2023. Rwanda is lined up for 2024.
“We will stick to the insects that people are used to eating in a specific location,” says Huijbers. In Uganda and Rwanda that would be grasshoppers. InsectiPro also has a small project running in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the Republic of Congo that focuses on palm weevils but is not planning to scale this commercially.
Huijbers believes a more eco-conscious generation will drive insect consumption in the future. “There is a younger generation that is not only worried about cost. They want to know about the impact, both positive and negative, of a product before they consider buying it. And they are looking at environmentally friendly alternatives that are available locally.”
Source: How we made it in Africa