Five MBA students, winners of the 2013 Hult prize, are promoting insect-consumption in select markets as a pathway to food security

Being a resource-efficient source of iron and protein, insects are eaten seasonally by 2.5 billion people worldwide.

When farmed efficiently, they could provide nutrition comparable to traditional livestock to consumers with limited financial resources and for populations where stunted growth and anaemia are pervasive. Given that over 200 million people live in urban slums worldwide, insect consumption (entomophagy) could even be a pathway to food security, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation notes in a recent report.

Keeping this in mind, a team of MBA students from the McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, Canada, seeks to formalise existing informal insect-consumption markets. Called “Aspire Food Group”, the team of five students are working towards the production, processing and promotion of insects for human consumption. They aim to promote innovative insect farming practices to provide year-round and better access to nutritious foods that include insect ingredients.

The team, winner of  the 2013 Hult Prize, the most prestigious competition worldwide for business school students, emerged from a field of over 10,000 college and university students from around the world. In the final round, they presented their pitches to a jury that included Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and executives of the World Food Programme and the United Nations Foundation, among others. They were awarded US $ one million in seed capital for their social enterprise, which was presented to them by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The team comprised Shobhita Soor, Mohammed Ashour, Jesse Pearlstein, Zev Thompson and Gabe Mott. Shobhita says they are looking to explore high demand markets, where insects were seasonal and the costs high due to hand harvesting, such as Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

But even within a particular country, the demand may be region-specific. For example, a grasshopper-eating population won’t necessarily eat crickets and vice-versa (although they may), she explains. “This is for a good reason — all insects don’t taste similar. Some are bitter, some are sweet, some salty.”

The most diverse insect eating population, the team says, is in Southeast Asia. Another market the team plans to explore is Ghana, with the palm weevil being a highly desired insect there.

In India, there is some insect-consumption in Arunachal Pradesh, and this model could potentially be applied there. But “due to the higher levels of vegetarianism in India and the stigma attached to eating insects, we do not plan to enter there in the near future,” Shobhita says. However, she continues, “Being of Indian descent myself, I have experimented with cricket-fortified chapatis. The taste is pretty good, especially with some achar!”

The team is hoping to grow demand for insect-based fortified food products down the line. They have tested out insect-fortified tortillas, chapatis and crisps.

To deal with local challenges and gain legitimacy with communities, the team has engaged with NGOs and strategic partners, regional and national governments, and companies. They intend to get connected with local NGO partners to get farmers on board, which will allows them to offset their capital expenditures and scale rapidly. However, they admit, distribution can be challenging in the slum environment.

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