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Uganda Grasshopper Entrepreneurs Now Unlikely Absentee COP26 Activists

Grasshoppers in Uganda

As the UN Climate Change Conference on limiting carbon emissions to 1.5 degrees, known as COP26, took place in Glasgow from November 1-12, 2021, unbeknownst to world leaders present, a little known township outside the Greater Masaka City, located 130 kilometers southwest of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, a community of Ugandans have been making a living from harvesting grasshoppers as long as the Buganda kingdom has existed since the 13th century, including where the grasshopper clan locally known as “nsenene” is one of the 52 clans in Buganda.

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  1. In Bukakata located on the outskirts of the greater Masaka on the shores of Lake Victoria, communities are making a killing from harvesting this popular delicacy between the rainy months of May and November.
  2. This is when the grasshoppers are forced out of their barrels by the rains.
  3. It is quite in contrast to a “white Christmas” in the West, which is characterized by snowfall to herald the season.

In Uganda it is the grasshoppers that literally “snow” from the sky, attracting several communities from adults to animated children playfully harvesting these critters. If Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) was Ugandan, the season would probably be christened “green Christmas.”

Increasingly, the trade has become a big enterprise with several Ugandan entrepreneurs using bright lights and smoke from burning grass to daze these nocturnal critters that smash into iron sheeting and slide into barrels to be trapped and harvested in droves. These hamlets are so well lit that on one occasion when traveling at night enroute from Kigali to Kampala, this writer mistakenly pointed out the lights as Masaka city, only to realize it was a swarm of grasshoppers attracted to the light, much to the disappointment of other occupants.

A sack of these grasshoppers can fetch up to UGX 280000 (US$80) at wholesale price in Kampala where it is on high demand from street vendors selling it to commuters in traffic to the major city markets. Many communities mainly from Masaka have managed to lift their livelihoods, build houses, and even educate their children from the trade.

What’s more is that according to research from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), edible insects improve livelihoods, contribute to food and nutrition security, and have a lower ecological footprint as compared to other sources of protein from beef, pork, chicken, and sheep.

Despite proof of their nutritional value as alternative sources of food that are both nutritious and environmentally sustainable, countries such as the USA, EU states, and the UK have not readjusted restrictions to allow the importation of insects even when they are packaged for export. Several African travelers have been met with tight border controls that destroy this prized delicacy on arrival at their destinations to their chagrin. On one occasion, a Ugandan passenger (name withheld) elected to bio-dispose the prized grasshoppers orally rather than surrender them to astounded US Customs staff, not after traveling halfway across the world.

There is also evidence that insects emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than conventional livestock which accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, where methane from livestock is a major problem accounting for 16 percent, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Insects require a fraction of the land, farm machinery like tractors, pesticides or irrigation pumps, and grow in days rather than months or years. They consume less energy compared to other forms of agriculture which is the biggest driver of global biodiversity loss and a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. With a ratio of 1 human being to 1.4 billion insects, this is immense and could be a relief for world nutrition even if served in powder or more palatable forms to save lives.

At the COP26 where Greta Thunberg participdated alongside youthful climate activists, Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate branded the summit a failure saying it was “a global north greenwash festival.”

She is not far from the truth where the G20 is not walking the talk despite contributing 80% of CO2 emissions. So long as insects are not on the next summit banquet menu (as was meant to be but for some prohibitive bottlenecks) to add to escargot, sushi, and caviar – more accustomed to the western palette, it indeed remains a failure. Added Nakate, “Historically, Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions and yet Africans are suffering some of the most brutal impacts fueled by the climate crisis.” She, however, offered words of hope, suggesting that change could happen if activists continued to hold leaders accountable for harming the climate.

Sadly, back home in Nakate’s Uganda, there has been a decline in yields from grasshopper harvesting to match the adverse effects of climate change due to deforestation. At Bukatata, large swathes of up to 9,000 hectares of wild habitat that was formerly forest and grassland are now pineapple plantations.

In Kampala where grasshoppers used to fall up until the 90s, green spaces and swathes of forest have given way to construction of sprawling malls, high-rise buildings, housing estates, and roads.

Perhaps in retrospect, an unwitting ambassador for grasshoppers and climate change activists for that matter, was Lupita Nyong’o, the academy winner of best supporting actress in 2014, when she themed her dress at the opening of the Cannes film festival on Uganda’s “nsenene,” for its color and wing-like designs and crediting Uganda’s women for the hairstyle inspiration.

Until then, Uganda’s grasshopper entrepreneurs shall remain as obscure as their nooks in Masaka until someone from the G20 gets the memo.

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About the author

Tony Ofungi - eTN Uganda

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