S.African entrepreneur seeks to turn caterpillars into tasty snacks

Published July 3, 2022, 5:20 PM

by Agence-France-Presse

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A start-up entrepreneur from South Africa wants to change the way edible caterpillars popularly known as “mopane worms” are viewed and eaten.

An attendee holds a mopani worm at the Hostex food Expo in Sandton on June 27, 2022. A South African start-up entrepreneur is changing the way people view and eat protein- and iron-packed mopane caterpillars. For the past seven months Wendy Vesela has been cooking up a culinary buzz selling iron-packed insects caterpillars known as mopane worms in wafer-like biscuits, energy bars, or as a pizza topping. The 40-year-old chemical engineer found creative ways to serve the spiky black and green caterpillars that some people find gross. She is selling them at home and abroad in trendy packaging as dried whole mopanes, but also as a milled flour that can be substituted for protein powder as well as a savory biscuit and sweet chocolate protein bar. EMMANUEL CROSET / AFP

For many people, particularly from western European backgrounds, the idea of eating insects is still riddled with fear and inhibition.

But they can be a valuable source of nutrition and farming them is not detrimental to the environment.

South African chemical engineer Wendy Vesela has found ways of turning the spiky green and black caterpillars — which are packed with protein and iron — into a flour that can be used in savoury biscuits, sweet chocolate protein bars, cereals or smoothies.

When steamed and sliced, mopane pieces can also be used as pizza toppings.

Vesela says she has found domestic and international customers for her organic products.

Edible insects and worms may indeed be gaining popularity in Western cultures.

But food anthropologist Anna Trapido insists that the trend should not be seen as just another dietary fad, a “kind of adventure tourism, where you get a badge” for eating them.

“Mopane need to be treated with respect because they are part of people’s emotional, spiritual, culinary genres,” she said.

In Vesela’s home province of Limpopo, where she grew up in a town not far from the world-famous Kruger National Park, mopane is a staple food, cooked in a sauce of onions and tomatoes.

– ‘More protein than steak’-

The caterpillars are “a healthier option of protein”, she said. And it’s “not a worm. So people have just to get over that fear.”

Vesela tried to woo reluctant customers with biscuits and protein bars at a recent food fair in Johannesburg’s upmarket Sandton district.

“I won’t eat a worm. I’m sorry, it’s disgusting. But if you give it to me in the form of a chocolate… it’s really delicious,” said Gail Odendaal, 38, walking away with a bag of protein bars.

Mopanes are environmentally friendly, too, requiring no extra water or land, as they breed and feed on mopane trees, which grow in hot and dry regions of southern Africa.

They are a better source of protein than many other foods on the market, said dietitian, Mpho Tshukudu.

“It’s high in protein, in essential fats and minerals, especially iron. It has more iron than the most expensive piece of steak,” she said.

With demand rising since she started her venture seven months ago, Vesela plans to expand the business and have multiple harvests a year.

She now hires rural women to gather mopanes when they are in season in December and April. The mopanes are gutted, boiled and dried to then be used whole or milled.