As the sun rises over Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, women, men and children huddle in a muddy field, waiting anxiously for the day’s deliveries of nsenene.
Nsenene is usually translated as grasshoppers, but these are technically bush crickets. The insects taste a bit like prawns when fried with salt and oil to get that exoskeleton crunch. They are considered a high-protein delicacy in Uganda. And November is their season.
“A season to crunch. A period to lick salty lips,” as one Ugandan, Ahabe Jonathan, wrote on Twitter.
A silver Toyota Mark X pulls into the Katwe field and pops its boot open. From it, a man pulls out a sack of nsenene and starts the bidding. It is a sellers’ market.
You have to be licensed under the local trading association to take part, and demand is high.
“I started in the grasshopper business when I was 10 years old. Now I am 51,” said Katende Lawrence, the chairperson of the Basenene Tukolelewamu Association.
Basenene Tukolere Wamu translates to “Let’s Work Together, Grasshopper People.”
When another vehicle pulls in, Katende dashes off to run the auction. Standing atop the vehicle, he receives cash from bidders, quickly counts and gives it back if dissatisfied with the offer.
“I want 170 000,” he announces. That’s about $48.
“When the grasshopper harvesting has just begun, prices per sack can go as high as 800 000 shillings [$210] or a million [$300],” said trader Kemigisha Lydia.
Her business is to buy from the wholesale auction and sell nsenene by the cupful. She says a cup can cost from $2.1 to $3.8 when supply is limited, and this season has been a season of limited supply.
“These people have all come here to buy nsenene but they are scarce,” Katende says. “That’s why everyone seems angry,”
Another trader agrees, and laments that much of the supply that is available is being exported.
On a recent Uganda Airlines flight to Dubai, people swarmed through the plane to buy nsenene when one passenger, Paul Mubiru, decided to sell his stash on board.
The airline has said it might add nsenene to its in-flight menu, but Ugandan police, on instructions from the minister in charge of the aviation sector, arrested Mubiru and another passenger involved in the incident for disorderly conduct.
That’s just not cricket
At the age of 10, Lawrence caught nsenene by hand. Today, a harvester must set up complex traps of bright lights and smoke. Naked lights are hung between unpainted iron sheets above barrels, around which the harvesters burn grass. Attracted by the lights, the nsenene are dazed by the smoke. They crash into the iron sheets and slide into the barrels.
Harvests are bigger than they were in Katende’s childhood, but he is worried that nsenene will one day disappear because Uganda is losing its dense indigenous forest cover in which the insects thrive.
“Other countries have places where people work, live and areas dedicated to forest reserves. Here, people cut down forests to plant other money-making tree species and to construct houses. That is what has destroyed our world.”
Nsenene buyers used to operate in the upscale Nakasero market, but “constant wrestling with city council officials” forced them out and into Katwe, where they occupy land belonging to the king of Buganda.
Back at the Basenene Tukolelewamu Association office, the register has signatures from visitors as far away as France and the Netherlands while exports go to Sudan, Malawi, Burundi, Rwanda, London, Dubai and Vietnam.
Our visit is cut short when a woman walks into the office in tears. Her sack of nsenenes has been stolen. It is a valuable commodity, but it seems not everybody is profiting.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.