Update on September 19, 2013: The ownership of this plan is currently under dispute with Jakub Dzamba, a PhD candidate in architecture at McGill, claiming ownership of the idea. For more details, view here
Five students from the Desautels Faculty of Management at
McGill University, Canada offered a rather innovative (read bizarre) solution
to the challenge of the 2013 Hult Prize, considered by some as the Nobel Prize
of the b-school arena. Responding to the challenge of developing a viable
social enterprise to tackle the challenge of food security for urban slum dwellers, these
students have offered crickets as an inexpensive source of food as well as a
new source of income.
The plan is simple – provide inexpensive cricket producing kits (about USD 6) to urban slum dwellers where they can grow the crickets, process them, use them as a food source and sell them in various forms. The model kit is similar to an Ikea laundry basket, approximately one metre tall and one metre around. The kit would need soil with eggs in it to be put in, then food and water approximately every day for several weeks. There is no gathering of crickets involved in the process. The food will largely be compost or waste, and the outputs, after consumption, will include reselling the waste of the cricket.
Now, whatever your personal opinions are about the solution, the judges of the Hult Prize competition sure think of it as a brilliant idea. The team is one of the five finalists in contention for the prize. Shobhita Soor (24), Zev Thompson (31), Mohammed Ashour (26), Gabriel Mott (37) and Jesse Pearlstein (28) are the five brains behind the project.
While the idea sure seems clever, there remains one fundamental issue. People might not be ready to let dead insects occupy their dinner plate just yet. Infact, many people who hear about it might get grossed out with the idea. However, research done by the team brings out an interesting fact that nearly 80% of the world's countries such as Thailand, Laos, Mexico, Ghana among others and 35% of its population consume insects as part of their regular diet. According to the team, far from being grossed out, the people would appreciate insects being available year-round in a regular market. The team also draws an analogy between crickets and Sushi. “Crickets could be today what sushi was 25 years ago: an exotic food that seemed disgusting (raw fish?!). Today, in North America and Europe, sushi restaurants are extremely common and sushi is considered completely mainstream,” quips Zev Thompson, one of the students who worked on the project.
(From left to right: Mohammed Ashour, Zev Thompson, Shobhita Soor, Gabe Mott, Jesse Pearlstein)
For those places where insects are not consumed, the students have offered fortified flour that is part ground cricket and part regular flour (wheat, corn, rice, etc. as locally appropriate). The whole crickets would be ground and regular flour would be fortified with them. Their research indicates that up to 70% by mass can be cricket and the product still performs roughly like regular flour.
Moreover, if one is to go by their study, crickets are highly nutritious. Apart from being particularly high in iron, they are comparable in protein to beef or chicken, gram-for-gram. In addition, they are high in B vitamins (B1, 2, 3), and Zinc. They could also tackle specific nutritional deficiencies, in particular protein and iron. But how do you eat them? Crickets seem more like prawns which cannot be eaten daily. Zev offers a solution, “We liken them to lentils in an Indian diet than to prawns. They can also be mixed in curry or stir fried, or the flour can be consumed in flat bread,” says Zev.
Additionally, according to research done by the team, the easy availability of crickets around the globe makes them a good solution to the food problem. According to their interactions with cricket farmers, these insects are very easy to work with. Crickets can consume varied food sources, and are not too particular about their growing conditions. They do bite on a rare occasion but do not sting. As for harmful effects, concentrated toxins like lead can be a problem but the danger is the same like in other foods.
The idea sure looks good on paper but the team hasn’t done enough to check its practicality in real life. The team still hasn’t interacted with the urban slum dwellers who are the targeted beneficiaries of this solution. Although, there is an informal market for insects and the students intend to formalise this already-existing market, it doesn’t see an easy job to pull-off with the common perceptions across insects. “It was based on months of intensive research, but without verifying conditions ourselves we don't really know anything about its viability. This does not aim to change anyone's behaviour, but to give people more options for nutrition and income,” adds Zev.
The logic of cricket flour also seems a little absurd. For people who do not consume insects, eating insects will not be acceptable in any form. However, the team disagrees. Says Zev, “In regions where insects are not commonly eaten it is not usually due to vegetarianism. You are looking at it from more of a mathematical standpoint, but people's habits are more nuanced. Even if we produce flour that is cheaper and more nutritious, it could be hard to sell in some markets where consumers are extremely averse to change. We will need to find a marketing guru to succeed. Fortunately we will be able to take several months and really get our feet wet. For now, it's a great idea and nothing more, and I hope that with enough work we can develop it into a serious solution.”
So, for now, this one just seems like a crazy idea which might help the team reach closer to the 2013 Hult Prize, but not really change things on the ground. Perhaps the idea is guilty of offering too simplistic a solution to the growing problem of urban food security.