Insects, key actors of food security

Article, 16.10.2014

The International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), based in Kenya, supplies products and technologies that contribute to food and nutrition security to farmers and consumers in Africa. The SDC has supported the centre financially for almost 20 years. Interview with the ICIPE’s director-general, Segenet Kelemu, on the occasion of World Food Day.

An African bee extracts nectar from a flower as pollen grains stick to its body
The bees pollinate approximately 70 % of our food and animal feed supplies. © Wikimedia Commons/Sajjad Fazel

In what way does scientific research on insects contribute to food security? This question is one of the main topics dealt with at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPC), based in Nairobi, Kenya. This unique research centre focuses its research into development to reduce poverty both on insects that are harmful and those that are useful to human existence. Its four main areas are the human being, the plant, the animal and environmental health, with insects as the common factor. In addition, the centre has a major capacity-building programme that cuts across all four themes.

The SDC has been supporting the work of the ICIPE since 1996 and has earmarked about CHF 10 million for the centre in the period from 2014 to 2016. On the occasion of World Food Day, 16 October, the director-general of the institution, Segenet Kelemu, answers our questions about science, insects and food security as a field of research.

Please explain how crucial insects are to ensuring food security

Insects are essential to our ecosystems. More than 1.5 million species of insects have been identified. Their role in food security can be illustrated for example through bees, which pollinate approximately 70% of our food and animal feed supplies. We would not have much of the food we enjoy and rely on without the pollinating “services” provided by insects, in addition to the honey, beeswax and other products bees supply. If bees and other pollinators disappear, our food resources would be seriously threatened. Some species of insect are predators or parasites, feeding on other insect species that are harmful to agricultural crops. Predator insects are an important natural means of keeping pest populations, insects or weeds at low levels. Other insects serve as a source of  food for both humans and many animal species, as well as fish bait, and are a good source of protein. Insects are also very important as decomposers. Without insects to help break down and dispose of waste products, dead animals and plants would accumulate in our environment. But some insects also transmit diseases in plants, animals and people. We can therefore clearly see that they play, both directly and indirectly, a crucial role in ensuring food security.

How does ICIPE’s work contribute to transforming the agricultural sector in Africa and elsewhere? 

ICIPE is a unique centre that tackles critical issues for resource-poor people across Africa. In the area of animal health, for example, the massive presence of the tsetse flies affects livestock productivity in sub-Saharan Africa. A few years ago, ICIPE scientists noticed that  waterbuck lived easily in all tsetse fly infested areas. Our research demonstrated that these wild animals produce a chemical substance that repels tsetse flies. ICIPE made chemical analyses of the substance, and integrated it into collars to be worn by cattle. A system of traps developed by ICIPE to attract tsetse flies completes this technology. The efficiency of this product is established, but the means to produce the millions of collars needed is still lacking. We are working with partners to scale up this technology. Another of our programmes focuses on the health of bees because there are indications that African bees possess a genetic composition unique to bees on this continent that make them more resistant or tolerant to diseases and pests. Improving our understanding of African bees and their genetic composition will perhaps provide solutions to North American and European bee health issues.  

The centre also works on parasitic weed species that affect food security…

We have developed, for example, an easily accessible technology for crops which can eradicate the destructive parasite weed called striga. The tropical forage legume, desmodium, does this job when intercropped with striga-host cereal crops like maize, sorghum, rice, millet, etc.  Desmodium exudes chemicals that stimulate the germination of the minute striga seeds but does not allow it to attach itself to the host cereal crop. This technology also improves soil nutrients, soil moisture conservation, suppresses other weeds, controls pests such as stem borers, and provides feed to livestock. It is a great technology with a package of benefits. We have recently formed a partnership with a private seed company to produce seeds of desmodium on a large scale so that we can make these available to a number of countries and farmers. ICIPE has also developed a number of environmentally-friendly biopesticides  that are now on the market. We also have a successful programme on fruit flies, which are a serious threat. Our integrated vector management programme on tackling malaria is also successful. These are just a few examples.

Food security also includes the economic development of rural populations. Do you have some examples of projects moving in this direction?

The potential niche market for African silk is attractive to Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, for example, and generates interesting extra revenues for farmers. The ICIPE provides the complete technology, including silkworm eggs, mulberry tree cuttings and other such knowhow, to silkworm farmers. Honey and bees wax are also profitable branches of industry. ICIPE designs hives and helps farmers monitor the quality of their honey – which is even exported to Switzerland! It won a prize in Germany two years ago. Our centre has also domesticated populations of stingless bees for farmers interested in producing a high-quality medicinal honey.

We have recently initiated a project on insects for food and animal feed. ICIPE has more than 40 years’ experience in mass-rearing insects for experimental purposes. We intend to turn this knowhow into mass-rearing of insects for food and animal feed – for chickens, fish, etc. as a source of income. A number of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America traditionally use insects for food and these are a cheap and a high-quality source of protein. In some countries in Africa, for example, it is mostly the task of women and children to collect wild insects for home consumption. In Asia, particularly Thailand, insect production for food has been mainstreamed, and we can learn from this. I want to emphasise the role of individual and institutional capacity building in the development of a country. Development is all about capacity.

You are the first woman director-general of ICIPE. How did you become interested in science?

I remember very clearly a course of biology at high school. It was about the discovery of penicillin. It was for me a turning point. I remembered the people of my village whose lives were saved thanks to injections of penicillin. It is also at that time that I realised how science can bring solutions to problems and constraints in our everyday lives. As a young girl in my village, I also witnessed first hand the disaster caused by an invasion of army worm and the destruction of crops it caused. My father did not support my desire to go to agricultural college. He dismissively asked me: "Do you really need a university degree to become a farmer?” Of course, he had changed his mind long before he passed away!

What tips would you give to a young woman scientist from Ethiopia, or any African country, as you used to be?

Don’t let others decide what you should become, follow your passion, be brilliant and persevere! Science is demanding, but very satisfying at the same time, because it enables you to live your life with a great purpose, especially if you apply science to make a difference to peoples’ lives.


One of the 100 most influential women in Africa

Segenet Kelemu in a laboratory
Segenet Kelemu became director-general of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in 2013. © Julian Dufort

Segenet Kelemu won a scholarship to study in the United States in the early 1980s after having been the first woman from her region of Ethiopia to study at Addis Ababa University. She earned an MSc and PhD in America and carried out post-doctoral research in molecular biology during 1980s and early 1990s. She was then recruited by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture based in Cali, Colombia, where she worked for 15 years as a senior scientist and later as a division head.

A big turning point in her life came in 2006, when she won a prestigious award in Beijing for her contribution to social and economic growth in China. She found it somewhat embarrassing to see that she was the only African on the stage – her work made a difference in China, but what about Africa? On her return trip, she realised that she had to quit her job in Colombia and move back to Africa. “I enjoyed my job and my life in Colombia, but I always felt that something was missing,” she explains today. Kenya is her base, and her first job back in Africa was as director of the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) hub at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi. She became director-general of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in 2013. ICIPE has more than 480 full-time staff, several contracted personnel and 70-100 graduate students.

Segenet Kelemu has received many awards. She is one of the five laureates of the 2014 L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards and was among the 2013 elected fellows of the African Academy of Sciences. The May 2014 edition of “Forbes Africa” lists her as one of the top 100 most influential African women.