Bugs are the future. They are what we’re told we’ll all soon be eating if we care about the planet. For Wendy Vesela-Ntimbani, born in Limpopo province, South Africa, the mopani has been a culinary favourite since she was a child. Now the chemical engineer turned entrepreneur is on a path to share them with the world.
“Will you have a worm?” my friend Kathy visiting Durban from Oakland asks. It is May 2022. We’re at Africa’s Travel Indaba, the continent’s biggest travel trade show, back on track after a two-year absence now that we’re out of lockdown and learning to live with COVID.
Kathy tells me she came across the Limpopo stand where this woman is doing all kinds of interesting things with mopani worms. Kathy, no surprise, hadn’t heard of mopani worms before this encounter. She has picked up a couple of three-worm sample packs. “Sure,” I say in response to her offer.
I have had mopani worms before. Ate them in a stew, also at a Travel Indaba, ten years ago. But these are dried. And in fact, if you don’t look too closely and see what were once the wriggly bits, they taste a bit like beef jerky. Kind of chewy. An ideal bar snack with the red wine we’re drinking. Very tasty. Good to bite into. So the next day, I track down the enterprising woman who is creating this culinary buzz.
Their Time Has Come
It was ten years ago that Vesela-Ntimbani first considered launching a mopani business. She wrote a business plan. Then decided the world wasn’t yet quite ready, so held off.
Now, however, insects and bugs — from ants and grasshoppers to termites and cicadas — are regarded as cutting-edge superfoods.
Whole roasted crickets and ground cricket powder are becoming something of a norm in the United States and Europe. It’s the protein factor and over and over, we hear that insects — ethical, sustainable — are the future of food.
When COVID hit, Vesela-Ntimbani was working as a supply chain manager doing logistics and distribution. With all the job disruptions, “I thought, I need to go back to my business plan. I follow trends. I know what is going on. Now, insects and insect protein are big. Cutting edge,” she says. Predictions are that the world population will surpass eight billion people by 2050. “That’s just 30 years from now. Around the corner. People are going to be eating insects because the food production of today is not going to sustain the population growth.
“There are already companies farming insects. You’re reading about the pet industry starting to use insect protein. You read about insects, insects, insects. That’s when I said, wait a minute. The publications, they’re all talking about crickets, they’re all talking about buffalo worms, they’re all talking about mealworms.
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“OK. So now we need to bring mopani insects to the forefront because we have been eating these for generations and generations. But they are sitting off somewhere in the dark. Even for South Africans, you know… Like I was speaking to this gentleman, he’s Xhosa, I said, ‘Have a taste’ and he’s like ‘Oh my god, oh my god’… You don’t have to go far to see the resistance. I think it’s the fear factor.” Fear linked to unfamiliarity.
“We have an amazing product,” Vesela-Ntimbani says. “I call them mopani insects because when I say worms, people say no, no, no, no…”
They don’t mind insects? “Some people seem to find it easier.”
Nature’s Festive Season Offering
Vesela-Ntimbani grew up eating mopani worms. “And harvested them. I come from an area where there are mopani trees, so every season and the season is December, we go out to harvest. You aim to harvest as many as possible to sustain the family for the whole year till the next season.”
Nature’s festive season offering was a family affair in northern South Africa’s Limpopo province, which borders Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It is mainly women who do the harvesting, but “my dad loves it. My mum and dad, they’re a team. When it comes to mopani insects, they go out together. I mean, we go out as a community, but they go together,” she says.
She chuckles and I get a picture of memories of community and happy times.
“At this most recent harvest, my mum and my dad went with me because I hired people and had a team. They were very excited. They were my assistants. I had to tell them, ‘you’re not employed. Let’s get that clear,’” she laughs.
That particular harvest was the initial action part of her business plan, which she had been working on for 18 months.
Growing up, “we would harvest them from the trees, gut them and cook them by means of boiling, put on salt because it is a preservative. Dry them in the sun. Store them in a cool, dry place.” Exactly the same process she is using now, on a larger scale and with bigger plans.
Was it possible to sustain the family with this annual harvest? “Yes, it is possible.”
However, stories abound these days of over-harvesting, environmental abuse and degradation, marauders coming in to ravage the trees for exploitation. And, of course, the effects of climate change. The mopani trees are essential if there are to be mopani worms. Read about the mopani worm life cycle here.
“Today, we need to be very respectful of the environment and of our world and find new ways of doing things. That is one of the things we want to do as part of Matomani (the name of her business). So, how do we do this sustainability?
“Our plan is we are going to start farming mopani insects.” Among other things, planting more mopani trees and using greenhouses for incubation. “And instead of one harvest a year, we plan to create an environment for them to thrive and to have four harvests a year.” Her specialty as an engineer is processes. “Once the process is up and running and the cycle is mastered, it will all run pretty smoothly.” But all that, right now, is “the future.”
Protein That’s Good for You
“We’ve been eating these for decades,” says Vesela-Ntimbani. “I’ve been eating them for years. I have them in my house, always. They are a sustainable, alternative supply of protein. Look at what farming is doing to our planet. How do we become conscious consumers? You can get protein that is good for you in places other than what you see sitting in the supermarket aisle.
“The more I read, starting this business became a no-brainer. I saw the time to introduce them, to bring them to people’s pantries, is now. But then the question was, how do I get people to start consuming them, to start eating them?”
“Interestingly enough, when I was doing the research, I learned that 50 percent of vegetarians will eat insects. It is not an animal that is being killed. Sustainably harvesting mopani worms, you’re not harming the planet. So people looking for alternative sources of protein or who are cutting down on meat and becoming environmentally conscious are interested. And we’re keeping them as natural and organic as possible.”
Her idea was to show up with a bang. To have a beautifully packaged product, the branding inspired by her Tsonga roots—the three main cultural groups and languages of the Limpopo province are Northern Sotho, Tsonga and Venda. Her intention was to have consumers say, “Wow, I want to try that.”
She also knew she needed to offer multiple and different products using mopani worms. “To get people to start eating something, you have to offer it in a form people will understand. So, many people will have a protein smoothie at home or fruit yoghurt for breakfast. The stone-ground mopani flour can be added for a good dollop of protein.” I tried a tablespoon of the flour on plain yoghurt and found it yeasty and tasty.
Tsonga Stew and Pizza
“Pancakes can work well with 100 percent mopani flour. But if you want things to rise in the oven, you need flour at a ratio of one-part mopani flour to three parts regular flour. So you can use your usual recipe for scones, for muffins, for a cake and just balance it out.”
She suggests adding both a handful of worms and a tablespoon of flour to a salad. I haven’t tried this, but you would be adding protein and chewy crunch.
“For years, mopani worms have been available in the informal markets in Limpopo and neighbouring areas.” Usually sold by weight from big bags that don’t necessarily look hygienic. “But they have not been easily accessible for middle class and upper-class consumers.” Her target market.
She is delighted to tell me that her Matomani website is starting to show up on Google when people look for alternative protein sources, natural protein, and organic protein. She is active on social media. Early next year, her vision is to have a compliant processing plant geared to export.
She has already had them tested by the standards authority that supplies formal nutritional information listed on the back of each packet. Protein, zinc and iron score especially high. They have three times as much protein as beef, chicken or fish. “So in this 100g package of mopani flour, 60g is protein.”
Mopani Worms and Family
Vesela-Ntimbani, her husband and two sons, aged 10 and 12, live in Johannesburg. “But I am from Limpopo province, and that’s still home and where all of this comes from.” She indicates her current range, which will soon include energy bars.
To take a trip back to life before her mopani business, Vesela-Ntimbani went to primary school in a rural village called Kheyi (“pronounced K, like the letter”) near Phalaborwa, which was established as, and still is, a mining town. She completed high school in Phalaborwa, where her company is based.
Her excellence in math and science got her accepted at the University of Johannesburg to study chemical engineering. “It interested me. Back then, there was a big book in the library that was our career guidance resource.”
Looking through it, she was drawn to the engineering section. “Something about the processes and materials and products. I always want to know how products are made. How does this cup come to be, for instance?” She holds up the disposable coffee cup she’s been drinking from, turns it around and eyes it with curiosity. Chemical engineering spoke to her curiosity.
After graduating, Vesela-Ntimbani worked at South African Breweries for five years, which, if you Google, you will see is the largest brewery in the world. This is where she met her chemist/brewer husband. They married, then moved to Prague in the Czech Republic, for five years. Then to Switzerland for three, where she worked for a large pharmaceutical company.
“Then we came back to South Africa,” and the question became, what was she going to do? This is when she drew up her mopani business plan. “I had always had an interest in my own business. While I was in Europe, I got introduced to online shopping, and when we came back, I started an online shop. Fashion retail.” She did that for five years. Before the job that she was doing when COVID knocked us all for a loop.
She is now looking for funding. “So far, I have self-invested and one of the reasons small businesses fail, the founder runs out of capital. I think this is an amazing product, so I don’t want that to happen.”
When I ask if she dishes up mopani at home, it’s a bit of a joke. “The other day, one of my kids said, can we eat anything else other than mopani worms?!” One of the first things her parents did when she took her Czech husband-to-be to meet them was, “they fed him. Yes, of course, mopani worms.”