This African scientist is looking for super bugs

Photo: Julian Dufort, courtesy of Segenet Kelemu

Segenet Kelemu loves insects. For her, most insects and arthropods are not a nuisance or even a pest, though some of them can be, but rather a solution to some of the world’s most pressing problems: With a growing population to feed and rapid climate change, our current way of agriculture and food production are no longer sustainable. That is why Kelemu has dedicated her career as a scientist to use insects for a greater good. The results are both promising and fascinating.

We spoke to Segenet Kelemu via Skype ahead of the 2019 Falling Walls Conference. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Kelemu is the Director General and CEO of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe). A renowned research facility, icipe is doing insect science for sustainable development, to ensure food security and improve the overall health of communities in Africa. “We work in more than 40 countries and focus on African issues, but our research has global impact”, Kelemu tells us before diving into the specifics of her work.

First of all, scientists at icipe try to find and identify insects and arthropods all over Africa. Kelemu calls them “entry points”, as they are the basis for further research and applications. An important distinction is made between harmful and beneficial insects: “Today, there are about a million defined insect species on the planet and we are still discovering new ones”, Kelemu says. “Of this, only around 5.000 are considered harmful in a way that they transmit diseases or attack crops. The majority of insects are actually beneficial to the ecosystem.”

An example of beneficial species are so-called predatory insects. They are not harmful for humans and crops, but they feed on other insects that might be. As studies conducted by icipe have shown, introducing predatory insects in a certain area can help to reduce the impact of harmful insects on crops. This approach also works with plants: By introducing so-called repellant plants near a target food crop, it keeps harmful insects, such as Stemborers, at bay. This Push-Pull-Strategy developed by icipe has been successfully used by farmers for over 20 years.

Feeding humans and animals with insects

Pest control is one way to make agricultural more stable, especially in African countries, where losing one harvest can spell disaster for communities. More recently, Segenet Kelemu’s research has shifted to yet another application of insects: Using them as food for both livestock and humans.

In most Western countries, eating insects is still a peculiarity, nothing more than a funny tale we tell each other from our summer trip to Asia, where we took a bite of one of these protein-rich snacks at a crowded street food market. Yet slowly, along with the rise of meat alternatives, insects are arriving at American and European supermarkets. In Africa, they have been feeding humans and livestock for centuries.

“It is known that insects have many health benefits. They are high in protein, fiber, minerals, sterols and antioxidants. They multiply fast and they need limited water and land resources”, Kelemu explains. That is why they are useful in agriculture, where protein supplements already make up a huge amount of productions costs for both poultry and fish. By introducing animal food based on insects to local farmers and by establishing a new production chain, Segenet Kelemu expects a “win-win situation”: Farmers can feed their own livestock and at the same time grow insects for companies from the private sector.

There is no question that the rest of the world should be investing in the biodiversity in Africa, to conserve it and to utilize it. For us and for all of humankind

It is not all about mass-producing insects, though. By studying them, the scientists at icipe have also discovered new feature in some of the local insects. “We have recently submitted a paper for a research about the oil content of edible insects. We were completely blown away by the amount of oil some of this insects have as well as the quality. They really are the complete package”, Kelemu says. Given the demand of oil for cooking oil and beauty products, insect oil may prove as a viable alternative to, for example, palm oil, which has a much bigger ecological footprint.

Even though Segenet Kelemu has been working with plants and insects for decades, she is still surprised by some of them, for example a green grasshopper from Uganda called Nsenene, which turns out to be a real “super bug” based on its nutritional content. A local delicacy, 100 grams cost around three dollar, which is more than beef or chicken. However, attempts to mass-produce Nsenene have failed. At least until one of icipe’s graduate students had a breakthrough last year, as Kelemu explains: “The student collected the insect in the wild all over Uganda and immediately analyzed the content of its stomach to see what it had been feeding on. As it turns out, the grasshopper did not feed exclusively on grass, but also on other insects. It needed other insect’s protein to survive. So we composed a diet for Nsenene and are now able to mass produce it in the lab.”

Nsenene, a delicacy from Uganda

From Africa to all humankind

Stories like these are what brought Kelemu back to her home continent ten years ago, after spending most of her career abroad. At icipe in Nairobi, she found a research facility and brilliant minds that are willing to improve the living conditions of African communities. It is Kelemu’s vision that also led other leading African scientists to return from Germany, Norway and the US to work with icipe.

In the end, however, their work will not just benefit Africa. With populations increasing all around the world and climate change wreaking havoc on all continents, there is an incentive to change our food consumption and production everywhere. “Africa has been traditionally a source of genetic variety, providing solutions to diseases in wheat and barley”, Kelemu says. “There is no question that the rest of the world should be investing in the biodiversity in Africa, to conserve it and to utilize it. For us and for all of humankind.”

written by: Eike Kühl

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