An unpredictable climate

The following morning, dozens of sacks line the roads of Masaka’s makeshift nsenene market, some still trembling with the insects’ instinctive movements. Women sit along the pavement, adeptly stripping off wings and legs and then frying the nutritious bodies in oil. Boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers steady themselves as they carry last night’s catch to other markets dotted around the region.

The morning also brings news of more deadly floods and landslides that have devastated much of Uganda this rainy season. “Fury of nature,” reads the front page of the Daily Monitor newspaper, reporting that the Nile River has spilled over in northern Uganda, leaving thousands of people stranded. In the country’s east, dozens are reported still missing, feared dead, after landslides.

Extreme rainfall and frequent storms have battered much of East Africa this past year. Unusually warm seas along East Africa’s coastline have led to more evaporation and thus much wetter seasons throughout 2019. Such conditions happen every few years and are described by a climate system called the Indian Ocean Dipole. The same phenomenon has caused cooler sea surface temperatures in Australia, resulting in drought that has intensified bushfires there.

“This year was a very strong dipole year,” says Caroline Ummenhofer, who studies the Indian Ocean Dipole at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the U.S. “We’ve seen really extreme conditions all around the region in East Africa.” The evidence suggests that these dipole events are becoming more frequent, Ummenhofer says, but notes that these studies only draw on data from the last 60 years — a very short time in the context of climate changes.

To boot, these Indian Ocean Dipole events are happening on an overall warming climate. “You have generally warmer conditions that can exacerbate extreme events,” Ummenhofer says. Along with intense periods of rainfall, the likelihood of drought also increases.

Without comprehensive data, scientists are uncertain how the changing climate is affecting nsenene, but the life cycle of these insects is closely tied to the predictable biannual rainy seasons. “Anything that alters rainfall patterns must affect their breeding and migration,” says Musingwire of NEMA.

Philip Nyeko, an entomologist at Makerere University in Kampala, says there are anecdotal reports of falling populations and shifts in the movement of nsenene swarms.

“We thought we would have good harvests because of the rain, but the harvest was very disappointing,” says Abdul Mukasa, 68, who operates a harvesting site in Mbarara. As the nsenene harvest becomes increasingly unpredictable, so does the risk of harvesters making a loss. The high cost of running powerful electric lights throughout the night leaves some with mounting debts by the end of the season. “When there’s a low catch, we get into fights with the people who gave us loans,” Mukasa says.

The unpredictable nature of nsenene swarms has led the most successful harvesters to invest in multiple sites in different districts. That way, if one site fails, another will come through. Lubega, the market chairman, operates five sites spread across Uganda, and overall this year made a profit. But even Lubega isn’t immune from the erratic migration of nsenene. “I bought a generator for 21 million Ugandan shillings [$5,700], but that site hasn’t even made back a third of the cost. It affects us so much,” he says, adding he’s thankful that his other sites compensated for this loss.

As the number of harvesters in Uganda continues to grow, with more lights competing for the same catch, the odds of making money each season become lower. The boom in commercial harvesters, alongside sudden changes to the climate and nsenene habitats, also carries the risk that nsenene could be overexploited.

John Mulindwa in front of drums for capturing nsenene. Image by Thomas Lewton for Mongabay.
“The harvest season was good when the forests were not yet cut down, but now [the nsenene] don’t have any food,” says John Mulindwa. The insects’ habitat within Uganda has been severely degraded. Image by Thomas Lewton for Mongabay.

Taming wild insects

“We cannot continue to only rely on the wild resource,” says entomologist Nyeko. “The number of harvesters has already overgrown.” Nyeko leads a lab project at Makerere University to rear nsenene in cages as an alternative to traditional harvesting. He says he fears that if current trends continue there’s a risk that nsenene populations will disappear. “These insects swarm to breed, not to be collected by people. So if we take out that breeding population massively, as we are doing, there is an impact on the next generation,” he says.

Over the past decade, his team has carried out a series of experiments, piecing together the optimum conditions for each stage of the nsenene life cycle — from egg, through nymph to breeding adult. For now, the project remains in the realm of the lab, with each experimental cage breeding about 50 insects — nothing near the numbers needed to make farming nsenene a commercial success. But Nyeko stresses the need to get all the details right before offering the technology to harvesters. “We have to be sure, we only get one chance,” he says.

If successful, farming nsenene would allow them to be sold all year round, instead of being dependent on the rainy seasons. As nsenene are a rich source of protein and fatty acids, Nyeko says this technology could help to reduce malnutrition in Uganda. According to UNICEF, one-third of children in Uganda are stunted, while a quarter of women of child-bearing age are anemic. Nyeko’s team is planning a project this year to evaluate the health benefits of feeding infants biscuits and porridge that contain nsenene.

Such is the demand for nsenene in Uganda that sales of beef, pork and poultry dramatically fall during the season. And with insects now considered the meat of choice for environmentally conscious consumers the world over, it may be possible for nsenene farmers to tap into international markets. “The demand for these insects in East Africa is huge,” Nyeko says, “but I’m sure the demand will go far beyond this.”

Still, some harvesters, aware of the risks of investing in new equipment, are skeptical. “Growing grasshoppers in cages, it needs a lot of investment and technology,” Mugisha says. “Becoming a scientist, it’s not cheap.”

For now Mugisha says he remains hopeful that nsenene will continue to swarm and that his business will keep growing. “Things change, but every rainy season grasshoppers are there.”

Banner image: Nsenene harvester. Image by Thomas Lewton for Mongabay.

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