A young Burkina Faso inventor is turning shea caterpillars into big business - and way to beat malnutrition - in his drought-hit country
By Morgane Le Cam
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso, Jan 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Small black cylinders simmer in two pots, emitting a pungent and smoky smell.
This is not someone's kitchen, however. It's the offices of FasoPro, which double as a caterpillar laboratory.
Kahitouo Hien, a tall, slim man, walks hastily from one room to another, wearing a white t-shirt with an unusual slogan: "Small caterpillars, big pleasure".
"Caterpillars are made up of over 60 percent protein," Hien explained. "They are among the most nutritious foods available in Burkina Faso."
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, acute malnutrition in the northern Sahel area of Burkina Faso stands at 9.4 percent for children under five, close to the 10 percent level that is considered a serious emergency.
A lack of food and of diverse nutrients - caused by poor harvests as a result of drought and resulting low incomes - is behind the problem.
Hien, however, aims to change that. In 2015, he set up an improvised laboratory in Burkina Faso's capital to industrialise the production of shea caterpillars - insects that feed on shea tree leaves.
Traditionally eaten by members of the Bobo tribe in the west of the country, caterpillars are now sold at markets throughout the country as a tasty treat.
But no one had thought of industrialising their production until now, Hein said, despite the fact that "there's a market out there."
FROM STUDENT TO ENTREPRENEUR
Hien decided to start his business while studying engineering in 2011.
"I wrote a business plan on caterpillars because I've been eating them since childhood," he said, smiling broadly. "My tutor encouraged me to take part in U.C. Berkeley's Global Social Venture Competition."
He went on to win the prize for best social start-up in 2012. Armed with the prize and his degree, Hien worked on developing his business for two years before finally selling his first caterpillars to market traders in 2014.
"It didn't start off well," he recalled. "Our price - 3,000 CFA francs (about $5) for one 500g pack of fresh caterpillars - was just too high."
He came up with a solution the day his steriliser broke down.
"Bags of fresh caterpillars were piling up and the insects were drying up," Hien said. "We had to find a way to shift them."
In January 2016, he launched a new product: dried caterpillars.
At 650 CFA francs (about $1) for a 70g pack, the crunchy caterpillars were an instant hit, said Hien, who now employs six people in his business.
"We sold 30,000 units last year, and hope to hit 100,000 this year," he said.
Yelo Kam, one of his employees, meticulously cuts labels for the caterpillar bags in one of the company's rooms.
"Kahitouo is an ambitious man, a visionary," she said, without lifting her eyes from her work. "You have to be brave to hang in there."
His venture gained 42,000 euros ($45,000) in 2016 after winning a French competition rewarding social initiatives.
"The money will allow us to attend regional fairs, as well as find markets and partners in West Africa," Hien said.
While developing his company, Hien still pursues his first passion: research. For several months, his team has been working on ways to breed the caterpillars in a controlled environment, rather than in nature.
"Once mature, caterpillars normally hide in the ground to grow - a stage that is only possible in porous soil," Hien explained. "Yet with soils drying up, caterpillars are becoming rarer."
While initial results are encouraging, the company needs more funds to finish its research, he said. Still, the road ahead does not scare him.
"I like taking risks. It's challenges that spur me on," he said. And he's already thinking of his next prototype: a cricket biscuit.
(Reporting by Morgane Le Cam, editing by Zoe Tabary and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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