Making more of mopane

Mopane worms – the larvae of the mopane emperor moth (Imbrasia belina) – are probably today the leading edible insect in southern Africa. They have been harvested and eaten by people in areas where mopane trees grow for centuries. Mopane worm are the most commercial of the edible insects in the region. Rich in protein and crude fat, they occur in subtropical areas of SA, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia.
Traditionally, mopane worms are harvested from the bush, then dried and cooked with vegetables to make relish. The dried worms are also sold on street markets (at about $1.30/cup in north-eastern South Africa currently).
But in many areas the mopane worm sector may be in trouble because of threats to the mopane tree. In many areas, there has been deforestation of mopane for firewood.
To a large extent, the conservation of the insect depends on the conservation of the tree.
Another threat is frequent over-harvesting (not leaving enough worms for the next cycle). For instance, in Zimbabwe currently there is over-harvesting by desperate people seeking food. They are trespassing into national parks to collect the worms.
In a good area, two crops of mopane can be harvested per year – at Christmas and Easter.
That mopane harvesting could become a larger industry is illustrated by the success of a commercial farmer in northern South Africa who pursues scientific, sustainable practices. Each year he invites harvesters onto his farm, but closes when enough have been harvested.
Research indicates that only 10 mopane worms per tree need to be left for the next season.
A few tons of mopane worms can be harvested from a mopane tree per year.
In northern South Africa, mopane processing, value-adding and product marketing forms part of a $1.5m Development Bank of Southern Africa-funded project.
South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which is doing research for this project (and has done much previous research on mopane processing), has produced some excellent processed mopane products which are likely to appeal to markets well beyond traditional mopane consumers.
For more on the commercial potential of mopane worms, contact:
Morewane Mampuru, project co-ordinator, CSIR: Tel +27-12-841-2356; mmampuru@csir.co.za
Rob Toms, Transvaal Museum: Tel +27-12-322-7632.