June 23, 2021

Edible Insects: Global REACH grant funds unique study to help feed expecting mothers

Researchers across disciplines look to palm weevil larvae as a source of nutrition in Liberian maternity waiting homes

Palm Weevil beetles are considered pests, but their larvae are a sustainable nutrition source for populations that are food-insecure. Photo: Katja Schulz.

In typical maternal health research, the most important development period is nine months. Not so in Jody Lori’s most recent project in west Africa, where the critical measure is 28 days.

That’s about how long it takes for palm weevil eggs to hatch and grow into edible larvae, a good source of protein for expectant mothers and a potential income source for the health facilities where those soon-to-be moms wait out the final days of their pregnancy.

The project, initially funded with a Partnership Development Grant from Global REACH, brought together colleagues from three disciplines and as many countries to pilot on-site palm weevil farms at maternity health waiting home facilities in Liberia.

“I never thought I would have anything to do with an entomologist or learn about sustainable farming,” said Lori, a Professor and Associate Dean of Global Affairs at the U-M School of Nursing.  “One of my favorite aspects of this project was the opportunity to work across so many disciplines.”

Weevil larvae harvested at Fenutolie, one of four maternity waiting home sites to participate in the pilot study.

‘Always looking for ways to feed the women’

Lori has long studied maternity waiting homes, facilities built near hospitals where women go in the final phase of pregnancy to help ensure they give birth with a skilled attendant. She helped established some of the first such facilities in Liberia more than a decade ago and has followed their expansion and evolution in the years since.

The maternity waiting homes don’t stock food for their clients, who must come with their own supplies. Many don’t bring enough.

“The facilities are always looking for ways to feed the women. Some have tried gardens, some have tried to raise chickens,” Lori said. “In Liberia, it’s not unusual to see people selling weevils at the side of road and I started thinking about a palm weevil farm.”

Pests? Or Protein?

Palm weevils are large beetles that lay their eggs inside their namesake trees. The hatched larvae excavate tunnels and often kill the host trees, a fact that has earned the weevils a prominent place on many “invasive” and “pest” species lists.

But the larvae, which in their pre-beetle phase grow to be more than an inch long and about as big around as the tip of your thumb, are increasingly seen as a potential nutrition source for populations where food insecurity is common. Raised in bins containing a simple compost mash, the weevils are economical to grow, quick to reproduce, and easy to harvest.

They are also a good source of nutrition, containing more protein and iron per gram than beef, chicken or fish. In a survey, study participants indicated a preference to eat the weevils grilled (50%), as opposed to boiled (25%) or fried (25%).

Harvesting pulp from a fallen palm to make the weevil feed.

Ghanaian-Liberian partnership

Lori partnered with entomologist Jacob Anankware, PhD, a former post-doctoral fellow at the U-M School of Public Health and the founder of AnePaare Farms in Ghana, which specializes in rearing insects for food. U-M Medical School Associate Professor of Ob-Gyn and Learning Health Sciences Cheryl Moyer was a co-PI on the project, which garnered a Global REACH Partnership Development grant in 2018 and Graham Sustainability Institute award in 2020.

Together, those two seed projects funded pilot weevil cultivating operations at four maternity waiting home sites in Liberia. Anankware trained the staff on how breed, feed, and ultimately harvest the weevil larvae. Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, Lori could not be onsite and coordinated with her colleagues via video conferencing.

“It was really advantageous that Jacob is based in Ghana. Both Ghana and Liberia are west African countries with some similar food customs and even similar customs around childbirth,” Lori said. “I think that Ghanaian-Liberian partnership on the ground was part of the reason it was successful.”

Seeing through a different lens

Three of four sites harvested enough weevils to feed the women there, and one of those had extra to sell. At a fourth site, the larvae drowned when their bins filled with rainwater. The results were promising enough to prompt a recent Gates Foundation Grand Challenges grant proposal to expand across more sites. Lori and her team are awaiting word on the application but, regardless of the outcome, the project opened a lot of cross-disciplinary doors.

“It was  huge learning opportunity for all of us,” Lori said. “Those of us who understand about maternal and reproductive health got to learn about sustainable farming, and those who know farming were exposed to maternal and child health.

“It really helped us all see things through a different lens.”