Researchers Use Insects to Help Reduce Hunger in Africa


Virginia Tech researchers have demonstrated the effectiveness and economic feasibility of using insects to increase food security in one of the world’s poorest countries – Niger.

Economists from the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics recently partnered with entomologists from Virginia Tech and Niger in a study analyzing the profitability of using insects to curb millet yield losses caused by the millet head miner pest.   They estimate that multiplying and distributing the beneficial insect Habrobracon Hebetor could increase the nation’s food security by recovering as much as 41 percent of total millet yield losses.

“As one of the poorest countries in the world with significant malnutrition, it’s vital that we take steps to reduce the damage this pest is causing,” said George Norton, the professor of agricultural and applied economics who oversaw the project.  “Letting the millet head miner continue to devastate farmers’ yield will have detrimental effects not only for farmers, but for the country’s economy and the health of all Nigerians.”

According to scientists, the best way to reduce damage caused by the millet head miner is to control the pests’ population by breeding H. hebetor, a wasp that parasitizes millet head miner larvae, and releasing it around village farms in jute bags that also contain millet.

“Because Niger is a predominantly agricultural economy and millet is a major source of income and calories, it’s vital to curb these losses,” said Michael Guerci, a recent alumnus whose master’s thesis focused on the project.  “But a mayor benefit of this particular method is that it introduces farmers to an environmentally friendly pest management technique.”

Norton’s 30-plus year career working around the world with graduate students on agricultural development and pest management projects, combined with Guerci’s passion for food security, made them an ideal team to collaborate with Nigerian entomologists in developing and analyzing a sustainable and socially acceptable solution to the pest problem.

They devised a model that incorporated a cooperative purchasing arrangement between small breeding businesses and farmer groups in order to overcome the potential for one farmer to “free-ride” on insects purchased by a neighboring farmer.   In the model, farmer groups at the village level would use a portion of their farmer dues to purchase the prepared jute bugs, leaving individual farmers free to decide whether or not to purchase their own bags.

Cost estimates used in the model were taken from a pilot test of small H. hebetor-breeding businesses that distributed prepared jute bags to villages across Niger, while Guerci and Norton devised values for farmers’ willingness to pay based on survey responses to a questionnaire the scientists developed.

Using cost data from the pilot test, Guerci and Norton established a break-even point for the breeding businesses and then used survey data to chart price recommendations.   Other factors, such as labor issues, perceived risk, farmer benefits, and market potential, were also included in their analysis and recommendations.   Results indicated that businesses have the potential to be profitable in the first year of operation, with significant profit increases in subsequent years.

“While our feasibility model clearly showed that this approach could have major benefits for Nigerian farmers and businesses, we must consider all factors and all players that could impact its success,” said Guerci.  “Communication among all involved parties is essential – from grower businesses to research institutions, Extension agents and farmers themselves.   With stakeholder cooperation, the beneficial insect business appears to be a promising way of improving food security in Niger.”

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