Cameroon - Palm weevil grubs are, to many eyes, the sort of creature you would stamp on if you saw it wriggling in close proximity to your kitchen. But according to scientist Fogoh John Muafor you would be wasting a good meal.
“You can roast them on a fire, or stew them, or they can be pan-fried with tomatoes, or just on their own,” says Muafor, lead author of a new study looking at the trade and farming of palm weevil grubs in Cameroon.
Despite their maggot-like appearance, the grubs — which are found in the decaying trunks of raffia and oil palms— are extremely rich in essential food nutrients.
“The flavor is difficult to describe, but it’s a little like crayfish.”
Forest “food products” — including caterpillars, termites and locusts, among others — are essential to many livelihoods in the Congo Basin where over 90 percent of people depend on natural resources for food, medicine and income generation. Palm weevil grubs are particularly sought after and contain protein, carbohydrate, fat and energy values comparable to that of beef and fish.
Demand for the larvae is increasing – and so is the price. Due to its high economic value, the exploitation of grubs is now considered as important as hunting, fishing and animal husbandry.
Indigenous grub collectors may chop down healthy raffia and then only find a couple of grubs in the trunk, or maybe none — so it’s very wasteful
But harvesting the larvae comes at an environmental cost as raffia palms are often felled in large numbers for grub production.
“Indigenous grub collectors may chop down healthy raffia and then only find a couple of grubs in the trunk, or maybe none — so it’s very wasteful,” says Patrice Levang, a scientist from the Center for International Forestry Research and coauthor of the study.
“There are also semi-farmed methods, by which collectors intentionally fell healthy raffia so that they decay which in turn attracts weevils to lay their eggs. This is slightly more efficient but still results in a lot of cutting.
“Cameroonian marshlands are home to various animal and plant species and the raffia coverage is an important part of the ecosystem. As trees are lost the water table rises making the area more susceptible to flooding.”
In order to find ways to promote grub production while reducing damage to the raffia ecosystem, CIFOR, the Living Forest Trust (LIFT), and Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) have partnered to develop sustainable methods and techniques, detailed in Muafor and Levang’s research.
The systems, which have been pioneered in selected village communities in the Nyong River Basin, involve mating adult palm weevils in plastic boxes containing fresh raffia tissues.
This is a major improvement - before, collectors had to wade through marshland where they could be bitten by snakes
In the course of the study, a single stem of raffia used as substrate in the boxes was found to produce an average total of 276 grubs, more than five times the yield of a single stem of raffia in the semi-farming system, and nearly eight times that of the traditional gathering method.
“This is a major improvement,” Muafor says. “And of course it makes the collection process much easier.
“Before collectors had to wade through marshland where they could be bitten by snakes. And in the wet season access becomes worse and so grub supply dwindles and prices go up.
For professional grub collectors, who earn between 90,000 ($153) and 300,000 francs a month, the new methods represent a significant economic opportunity.
At rural markets grubs are traded at more than 5000 francs per kilo, almost double the going rate of beef, at 3000 francs per kilo.
In Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, a package of 25-30 grubs can sell for 1500 francs in the dry season, or 2500 in the wet season (when supply drops off).
“But now they will be able to farm all year round,” says Levang.
“The scheme is well-liked in the trial areas and we are planning to expand the program into three more villages.”
“My only concern is that because of the efficiency of the farming techniques, grub farming becomes so widespread that the out-take of raffia palms remains the same or even increases over time.”
“But I suppose this is the ransom of success.”
GRUBS AS GRUB
A number of edible insects are eaten in Central Africa, but palm weevil grubs are probably the most popular according to Levang and Muafor, who have also published a study on the Augosoma centaurus (or rhinoceros beetle).
But while they documented that the local appetite for the crunchy beetles has dwindled, the weevil grub trade continues to grow.
This new method of high yield production will ensure that grubs can be produced year round – which cements their position as an important alternative protein – and a valuable income source in Cameroon.
The future of Cameroon’s specialty of roasted grub brochette (three or four critters on a stick) and the profits they bring to road side hawkers and upmarket restaurants seem assured. On a personal note, that makes Fogoh John Muafor very happy.
“Of all the edible insects, palm weevil grubs are considered a special delicacy,” he says.
“I always bring some back from research trips for myself and can personally recommend them.”
This research is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.