How insect farming is lifting Cambodians out of poverty

A more lucrative trade than working in textile factories, insect farming is proving to be a key ingredient in fighting rural poverty in Cambodia.

Former textile factory worker Ngo Sinoun, 37, is now an insect farmer. to Image: Roberto Traina
Former textile factory worker Ngo Sinoun, 37, is now an insect farmer. to Image: Roberto Traina

Ngo Sinoun recalls the gruelling time spent working in a garment factory. With four young children to provide for, the 37-year-old was forced to battle through ailing health to work long hours to support her family.

“I had to stop working at the factory because of my poor health and I didn’t want to leave my young children at home without any care,” says Ngo, who lives in Prey Pou village in the southern province of Takeo.

This led to a struggle for survival, with Ngo’s husband’s meagre wage working as a edjai collecting waste in the village to sell the family’s only form of income.

Life was hard for the Ngos until last year when they were thrown a lifeline in the form of insect farming. “I was approached by staff from Farmers and Nature Net [an organisation that coordinates village-based farmer associations], who shared information with me about raising crickets,” says Ngo.

After being introduced to this form of insect farming, which she is able to do from home, Ngo was keen to get involved. She hasn’t looked back. In a good month, Ngo can walk away with US$400. The minimum monthly wage for a garment worker in Cambodia was raised to US$182 just over a year ago.

We want to fight poverty by upscaling cricket farming and work with the poorest families to help improve their livelihoods.

Kristen Rasmussen, country director, DCA Cambodia

Ngo is one of 68 people humanitarian non-government organisation DCA Cambodia is working with on its cricket farming project across Takeo. The province is already famed for its cricket farming. The aim is to target the poorest communities and equip them with the skills to create their own insect farms.

“We want to fight poverty by upscaling cricket farming and work with the poorest families to help improve their livelihoods,” says Kristen Rasmussen, DCA Cambodia’s country director.

Since 2013 when the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) published a 200-page report that suggested insects were key to reducing world hunger, food shortages and food insecurity, the world has woken up to the potential edible insects hold.

The FAO’s reasons for promoting edible insects include a raft of environmental issues, such as lower production of greenhouse gases and use of water than rearing livestock. It also cites insects as having a high food conversion rate. Crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and chickens to produce the same amount of protein.

According to the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, crickets are rich in protein, ranging from 60 to 65 percent. In comparison, meat ranges from between 25 and 30 percent.

Katinka de Balogh, senior animal health and production officer at FAO’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific, says the organisation is currently creating awareness about the potential of crickets for human nutrition and income generation. It is also looking into the potential for the insect to be used for animal feed.

While eating insects is nothing new in Cambodia – deep-fried crickets, tarantulas, scorpions and other bugs are commonly sold street snacks across the country – it is an industry that can be elevated, according to Rasmussen.

“We saw a real opportunity to advocate change in these communities through cricket farming, which holds many other benefits as well,” she adds.

Cambodia ranked 90th out of 113 countries in the Global Food Security Index 2019, and while agriculture has increased across the country, yields and profits remain low. With small-scale farmers being the hardest hit, DCA Cambodia saw crickets as a way to boost their income – and livelihoods.

In 2017, the organisation put forward a proposal for its Investing in Smallholder Export of Crickets to International Tables project (INSECT). It received funding and in 2018 set about finding existing and potential cricket farming communities to work with.  

In August 2018, Japanese science entrepreneur Seiya Ashikari jumped on board as a volunteer. Ashikari, Rasmussen and a team of people travelled to Thailand – a global leader in cricket farming – for inspiration. Time was spent testing growth rates of different cricket species and smart pens capable of producing 10 to 12 tonnes of crickets a month were created.

“We could see how quickly cricket farming improves lives,” says Rasmussen. “Crickets grow very fast, take up little space and the work is very minimal. It’s ideal for rural families, especially those who need a housebound income.”

While major steps need to be taken in terms of processing and hygiene before these Cambodian crickets can be preened for the international market, the project’s second phase has seen DCA Cambodia this year work with villagers to come up with ways to promote crickets to locals.

“Not all Cambodians want to eat crickets,” says Rasmussen. Instead of selling whole crickets, an alternative is to make cricket powder. Villagers sun-dried the insects and crushed them into a powder that can be added to drinks or used as an extra ingredient in food. “It’s an excellent supplement to improve nutrition,” she says.

Ashikari recently bought a drying machine, grinder and other equipment to improve hygiene levels and enable the powder to be created on a more industrial scale. He is looking at exporting Cambodian cricket powder to the Japanese market, as well as producing cricket-based products to sell in Cambodia by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, throughout Takeo province, residents are receiving snacks with a difference. In schools, pupils flock round street carts selling cakes made from cricket powder. Elsewhere, curious residents crowd to stalls advertising wontons made with crickets, garlic and chilli.

“As eating crickets is common in countries like Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, there is certainly a market for crickets,” says de Balogh. FAO is also currently addressing the issue of making edible insects appeal to the masses. “For rural communities, crickets can provide income and also contribute to nutrition.”

DCA Cambodia is currently gearing up to hand over the project to farmers by the end of the year. Rasmussen says she has seen production for some farmers double in 12 months. “This hits all the right elements,” she adds. “It addresses gender empowerment, health and nutrition, and poverty.”

As Ngo prepares to become one of the first farmers to operate a farm that raises hygiene standards, she is certainly one Cambodian benefitting from the cricket craze. “I now have four cricket pens, and will build more as I expand my business,” says Ngo.

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