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Insect trappers profit from Uganda's taste for grasshoppers

By Ioannis Gatsiounis, for CNN
  • Uganda has a booming informal trade in grasshopper trapping
  • Lawrence Mawanda is a "nsenene" trapper in Kampala
  • Trappers lure grasshoppers using floodlights, often illegally connected to the national grid
  • Illegal lights can cause power cuts in local neighborhoods

Kampala, Uganda (CNN) -- In Uganda, where grasshoppers are regarded as a delicious seasonal snack, the appetite for the crispy critters has created a booming informal trade that has turned some trappers into wealthy men.

"They were just something you found in the grass during the rainy season," explains Ugandan Lawrence Mawanda. "I didn't know they could be profitable."

But 10 years ago on a trip through the Masaka region, the 53-year-old lorry driver glimpsed a row of rusty oil drums lining the roadside and fitted with long corrugated aluminum sheets shimmering under powerful fluorescent bulbs.

Swarms of insects were dancing around the lights, and every few seconds one would smack against one of the metal sheets and slide into a drum, from which they did not emerge.

They were just something you found in the grass during the rainy season. I didn't know they could be profitable.
--Lawrence Mawanda, grasshopper trapper

The next rainy season, he says, he introduced the trap to the capital, Kampala, at a start-up cost of several hundred dollars -- covering lights, wiring, sheets and drums -- becoming the city's first large-scale grasshopper trapper.

Now, during the rainy season, portions of this city and nearby districts that attract high concentrations of grasshoppers -- known as the central belt -- bask at night in a stadium-like glow, punctuated by the ping and scrape of grasshoppers in their losing battle with the aluminum sheets.

During high season the sidewalks of the Kampala neighborhood of Natete are lined with mostly women vendors selling grasshoppers whole or plucked of their legs, wings and antennae and deep fried or sautéed with onion and chili. They fetch 1,000 Ugandan shillings (40 cents) for four-teaspoons worth.

Boys shouldering plastic buckets of them roam the streets or drift into bars where the grasshoppers are spread on a banana leaf and savored with cold beer.

Once a subsistent delicacy trapped in polythene bags or between the folds of flapping blankets, mostly by women and children, grasshoppers, known locally as "nsenene," have evolved into a booming informal sector.

Mawanda says he earns about two million Ugandan shillings (about $780) per season from grasshoppers -- more than double Uganda's GDP per capita -- and though he still lives amid a clutter of rooms along a garbage-clogged canal in Natete, he has constructed a row of stalls now being rented out as a salon, pharmacy, and drug shop.

He's ventured into poultry and is putting his five children through school. Grasshoppers have relieved him of driving his truck, he explains.

But the trade is also wreaking havoc on the capital's power grid and hindering economic development in a country where electricity distribution is around 8% -- among the lowest rates in Africa.

Many, if not most, of the trappers access the grid illegally, frying overloaded transformers (and sometimes themselves), and costing the city $500,000 per month in earnings, according to officials with Umeme, the country's main private electricity distributor.

Last year Umeme started engaging residents in Kampala's Kamwokya neighborhood, where large-scale trapping abounds, to raise awareness of how the trade is affecting the quality of life there

Few residents, they found, were aware of the connection between grasshopper trapping and the diminishing delivery of power during grasshopper season -- November-December and May-June -- when lights dim or cut out up to 10 times in a week.

We want customers to know this is impacting their quality of life.
--Florence Nsubuga, Umeme
  • Uganda
  • Kampala
  • Africa

"We want customers to know this is impacting their quality of life," says Florence Nsubuga, Umeme's area manager for Kampala East.

Umeme says it has registered some success, beginning last December in the Mulimira zone of Kamwokya, where the power infrastructure is designed to accommodate 1,000 households, but is severely overburdened with just 450 legally registered users.

Umeme staff went house to house, disconnecting illegal energy users, including grasshopper trappers. Umeme manager Hussein Mubiru called it a wake-up call to the community that Umeme hopes to sustain through follow-up visits.

But Francis Mutubazi, a resident of Mulimira zone, who has been urging Umeme to address illegal usage with letters and phone calls since 2005, disputes Umeme's claims of success.

"Two days after Umeme came through the illegal users had reconnected," says Mutubazi, adding that Umeme took no further action when notified of the recurrence.

Umeme officials say much of the problem boils down to a lack of political will among government bodies like the police, as well as finding the right balance between regulation and promoting entrepreneurship in a country of massive unemployment.

"We have to balance between encouraging the informal sector and supplying electricity to those informal-sector groups in a legal manner," said General Manager of Regulatory Affairs with Umeme, Sam Zimbe.

An aggressive crackdown on the grasshopper trade, he says, would disrupt a supply chain that includes trappers, wholesalers, lorry drivers and retailers in a country whose appetite for the protein-rich insects, which taste like a cross between French fries and eggplant, is arguably greater than anywhere on the continent.

And yet Umeme charges grasshopper traders a deposit of 900,000 shillings ($355) per season to access the grid legally, which could inadvertently be encouraging them to tap the lines illegally.

Lorries deliver them in 50-kilogram sacks that sell for up to 100,000 shillings and are exported across the country -- which is how Mawanda makes a good portion of his annual income.

Asked what he makes of the power disruptions caused by the booming trade in Natete, he says, passing by his row of rented stalls beside the putrid canal, "I'm not worried about that."