BULWAYO, ZIMBABWE – As far as anyone can remember, mopane worms have provided a vital source of nutritional and financial sustenance for the citizens of Zimbabwe, especially in the country’s southernmost provinces.
In recent years, civic leaders and scientists have turned to the humble invertebrate, enlisting it to help mitigate malnutrition and pondering its adaptation to climate change. Now, the mopane has once again shown its boundless power, helping to support the economy in the cattle-ranching town of Gwanda in the southern part of the country.
In a good year, the rainy season in Gwanda is followed by a bumper crop of mopane worms, which are actually not worms at all but leaf-eating caterpillars of emperor moths.
Hundreds of visitors are drawn each year by the promise of abundant mopani, considered a delicacy in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.
They set up elaborate makeshift camps, staying for days or weeks to collect, clean, and dry their bounty before transporting it for resale. Their delicate flavor can be enhanced with a range of toppings and, once dried, the worms can be preserved in salt and packaged in tin boxes, extending their shelf life for months or even years.
Vimbai Chinembiri, GPJ Zimbabwe
In 2020, the mopane crop was the largest in 20 years, says Violet Makoto, a spokeswoman for the Zimbabwe Forestry Commission. “They emerged in some areas where they were believed to have become extinct,” he says.
The rains have been good “compared to previous years, which means mopane worms are in abundance,” says Sizalobuhle Sibanda, 23, who has a home in southern Gwanda.
Travel bans caused by concerns over the spread of the coronavirus have helped keep crowds at bay.
“The COVID-19 restrictions worked in our favor because they meant people from other cities couldn’t travel and collect our worms,” Sibanda says.
Mopane worms, known as amacimbi in the ndebele language and madora in shona, feed on the leaves of mopane trees, which are found mainly in the arid and dry regions of southern African countries.
Long a source of livelihood, the value of mopane worms continues to rise. In the face of drought, climate change and a challenging economic environment, a good harvest can help sustain Zimbabwean citizens for the rest of the year, Makoto says. Families sell the worms and stock up for themselves. “Because the mopane worm is dried, it lasts in the family for months,” he says.
Mopane worms are among a number of high-protein, low-carbon footprint insects now being studied as an antidote to malnutrition. Some climate modelers predict that as the climate warms, Zimbabwe’s mopane forests will expand, more resilient than other species in the warmer, drier climate.
In Zimbabwe and neighboring Botswana, canning and processing plants have been opened with the help of the African Development Bank. But since most of the mopane trade exists outside the formal channels, its monetary value is difficult to acquire: estimated earnings for South Africa alone range from $ 39 million to $ 85 million annually.
In Zimbabwe, estimated earnings range from $ 500,000 to $ 600,000 annually, says Tarwirei Elliot Mutedzi, a spokesperson for Mopane Worms Enterprises, which raises the worms for sale. But Mutedzi says it’s likely a significant underestimate that doesn’t take into account the large amount of worms exported to Africa and the United States, Europe and Asia.
“The mopane worm industry is still largely informal,” says Mutedzi. “So there is no precise data to quantify the export.”
Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe
The benefit of worms in Zimbabwe is seen most clearly in this informal economy, where they play an important role both as supplemental nourishment for rural families and as a valuable item to trade in and generate income. A study in South Africa suggests that harvesting mopane worms may account for a third of household income there.
“Mopane worms, found in nature, provide economic value to communities as they are a low-cost, high-protein food source compared to beef and other protein food sources that need investment,” says Felix Chari , lecturer in the economics department at Bindura University of Science Education. “They are also a profitable crop, as community members who harvest them supply rural markets and supermarkets in urban areas, increasing livelihoods.”
Rethabile Mlilo, married and mother of three, lives in Nkulumane, a dense suburb of Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe. On a cold, sunny morning, he gets up early to prepare mopane worms for sale.
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“I have been selling amacimbi for about six years now and among my other products, they give me the biggest profits,” he says.
The sale of mopane worms allowed Mlilo to add two rooms to her second rural home and pay school fees for her children.
As travels to collect worms resume, the Forestry Commission is advocating better regulation, both of the fields people live in while harvesting worms and methods for collecting and selling worms.
Outdoor mopane foragers setting up temporary shelters in mopane communities often cause a health risk because there are no toilets where they camp and people use the bush to do their own business, Makoto says. Mopane campers also cause rapid deforestation because they cut trees for firewood and to harvest worms before they mature.
Restrictions on the coronavirus prevented impromptu camps, Makoto says, providing important relief that the Forestry Commission aims to build in the future.
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