Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Feeling peckish? Try the ultimate indigenous high-protein snack: mopani worms. Entrepreneur Phuti Kabasa launched Mopani Queens to make flavoured mopani worms a mainstream health snack.
Phuti started her small business, Mopani Queens, out of need, as many entrepreneurs do. However, it was through listening to her customers and spotting a gap in the market that she found her unique positioning.
Phuti started her side hustle in 2008 to supplement her family’s income. The married mom of three girls started out by selling atchar, but realised that mopani worms would do even better. “When I sold atchar my customers asked me where the mopani worms were, because you eat your atchar with mopani worms,” Phuti recalls. She was selling mainly to colleagues at work in Pretoria.
“I’m originally from Polokwane in Limpopo where we grew up eating mopani worms. But when I tried to sell mopani to my colleagues from the Eastern Cape they [just didn’t get it],” Phuti says laughing. “I became intrigued and asked if they would try them if I flavoured them, which I did, and they liked it.”
She realised that she was onto something here, as no-one else was selling flavoured mopani worms as a snack. “Mostly people eat mopani worms as relish, as part of a meal. Never as something to snack on.”
Phuti played up this point of differentiation in the market by packaging her product as a convenient, flavoured snack. “It makes it easy for you – you can put it in your lunch box or take it with when you’re going to watch a game or something. They go really well with a lot of drinks. My favourite pairing is the Peri Peri ones with a dry red wine. So that was the whole idea: let’s move away from the idea of mopani as just something you eat with a meal.”
The Mopani Queens range comes in four flavours: BBQ, Peri Peri, Chutney and salted. Phuti explains that the salted version is not recommended for snacking because of the high sodium content, however. Instead, soak it in warm water for about 20 minutes to leach the salt, which is used to preserve it.
“Then you cook your stew, and five minutes before your stew is ready, you can add the worms to take up the flavour of the stew. My suppliers cure the worms, so it comes to me cooked, so there’s no need to cook them for longer in your stew.”
A global trend
While people in many countries have always eaten insects, the West is finally catching up and it’s becoming increasingly trendy. Entomophagy, the technical term for eating insects, is a real solution to the world’s food security and sustainability problem.
The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization says that demand for animal protein in particular is increasing the strain on the environment, but that edible insects are a sustainable alternative to going meat-free. They are kilogram for kilogram more nutritious than beef, yet they require less land, water and feed than traditional livestock. Farming with insects also produces significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Phuti emphasises the nutritional value of mopani worms. They are a good source of protein, with high levels of iron, calcium and phosporous. Some sources report that mopani has 64g more protein than meat and fish and offers more than 55g per 100g of protein per serving. That is good news for anyone looking for more economical sources of protein.
“Mopane worms also contain chitin and this helps with bowel movements. The old people have this remedy for constipated babies. They grind a mopani worm and then you put it in their food,” she offers.
Growing up, Phuti didn’t just eat mopani worms, but also locusts and other insects. “We spent the whole day chasing those things,” she recalls. “Insects are a part of my upbringing. There’s nothing strange about eating them. If it’s locust season, you snack on locusts the whole day, it’s not a strange thing for me and my family. Insects are part of our food.”
They taste like morogo
“My biggest problem when we’re packaging them, especially the chutney ones, is that my girls keep trying them out! My whole family eats them – sometimes you just want a change from beef or chicken, so for a bit of flavour, we try mopani. And they taste so nice. They taste like morogo, but with eggs. We enjoy them a lot.”
Getting people that aren’t used to the idea of eating insects onboard the mopani train is a bit difficult, Phuti admits. “Sometimes it works when potential customers see you putting it in your mouth and that might get to try. But I’ve seen that it helps if you cut the heads and the tail off. Some people prefer that. For others, who also do not want to eat prawns, not even that works.”
A hit with kids
Mopani worms have been a surprising hit with children, as Phuti discovered at markets. “Kids love them. They don’t see anything funny about eating a worm. As parents we need to be more open minded. Just because you don’t eat mopani worms, doesn’t mean your kids won’t enjoy them. We should not deny our children that opportunity to know our food heritage, because if we don’t pass it on, it’s going to die out. It’s up to our generation of parents to adopt those food practices and pass it on.
"I’ve noticed that we sometimes deprive our kids, unnecessarily so. As much as you would introduce them to other food you didn’t grow up eating, share with them what you grew up eating. If you have a wealth of food knowledge – share it. Unfortunately, with us Africans, you don’t have granny’s recipe book to look to and say that this is how we cook things and this is what we eat. It’s mostly word of mouth, passed down through stories.”
Celebrate indigenous foods
This drive to preserve our food heritage is why Phuti is on a mission to make indigenous food so mainstream you can buy it at your neighbourhood supermarket. She also plans to one day widen her range of mopani worm products.
“I would like to have energy bars and protein shakes made from mopani worms, for instance. I want to see a lot more people eating mopani worms and not think it’s a lesser food.” And instead of including other insects in her future plans, Phuti specifically want to stick to mopani worms and champion this exclusively African insect.
“Indigenous foods are not celebrated as they should. It’s actually heart-breaking when you go into a supermarket and you get a few shelves dedicated to Asian food (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but you don’t even get one shelve dedicated to South African indigenous food. You won’t find your African potato, traditional spinach – you’ll find it at the taxi rank.
A lot of people eat it daily, but you won’t find it in mainstream shops. You won’t even find indigenous teas. It’s marula season now (January to March). If you want marula, you buy them on the street. Why? The market is there, so why is it not formalised? We need these indigenous foods in shops – we’re living in cities now and it’s sad that we’re losing our indigenous food heritage. It’s part of our identity.”
Phuti explains that there is also a perception that traditional foods are not aspirational and that people would rather eat caviar instead of mopani. However, the entrepreneur remains determined.
“I would like to see more people eating indigenous food. They’re nutritious. Most of them are GMO-free, they’re straight from our environment so the carbon footprint is quite small when you eat them seasonally, when you’re supposed to eat them.”
Perhaps once more people start following the global entomophagy trend, Phuti’s dreams will be realised.