Fellows in the Field: Nikhila Kalra, PATH in Ghana

Ms. Nikhila (Nikki) Kalra is currently completing a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship through PATH, a Seattle-based global health innovation NGO and Hilton Prize Laureate. Nikki holds degrees from the University of Cambridge and the London School of Economics, and most recently received her PhD from Oxford University in International Development. In this blog post, Nikki writes about her field work experiences as a Spring 2016 Fellow in Ghana and Senegal through PATH’s Nutrition Innovation Program.

Innovation through Insects: Tackling Malnutrition with the Palm Weevil Larva

by Nikhila Kalra

At the start of my fieldwork in Ghana, I visited a rural community in the country’s Ashanti region to meet with some smallholder farmers who have been involved in an exciting new micro-farming initiative. Soon after I arrived, one of the project participants led me around to the back of her house and showed me the operation that has been helping her to feed her children and make some valuable extra income: six large buckets filled with wriggling white larvae.

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They are palm weevil larvae (pictured above), known as akokono in the local Twi language. These edible insects could have big potential when it comes to addressing the issue of undernutrition in Ghana, a country that faces significant rates of childhood stunting and anemia. As an intern at PATH, I was working with the Nutrition Innovation team to explore the ways in which the palm weevil larva can be developed as an accessible, sustainable food source that will improve nutritional outcomes for mothers and children.

Considered something of a delicacy in many parts of Ghana, palm weevil larvae are packed with protein, essential fatty acids and many important minerals including iron, zinc and potassium. They’re also a great candidate for micro-farming. PATH’s partner in this project, Aspire, a Canadian social enterprise company with a focus on edible insects, has developed a low-cost set up that allows smallholders to produce the larvae in or near their homes for both consumption and sale. The low start-up costs and proximity to the household make akokono farming particularly viable as an economic activity for women. But there’s another important benefit: insects have a much smaller environmental footprint than traditional livestock, requiring significantly less land, feed and water to generate the same amount of protein. This is just the kind of triple impact that we’re looking for at PATH: positive effects on people’s health, their income, and the environment.

If the palm weevil larva are going to be a successful tool for tackling malnutrition and advancing women’s empowerment in Ghana, it’s important that we understand it as part of a complete food system, all the way from production to consumption. This is what my work as a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow has been focused on. Thanks to this fellowship I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Ghana to conduct a value chain analysis for palm weevil larvae, which will allow us to answer some key questions: who are the actors in the value chain and what activities are they engaged in? What are the issues and challenges that they face? And, most importantly, which opportunities exist to add economic and nutritional value along this chain, and how can they be harnessed most effectively?

As well as helping us to gain these important insights, this fellowship has been a great practical training ground for me. When I first started on this project at PATH’s office in Seattle, I had no idea I’d get to contribute my own piece of fieldwork to it. The fellowship has been an invaluable learning opportunity, allowing me to take ownership of the research process from start to finish. This experience has given me a clearer understanding of the process of generating evidence for public health interventions, the skills to manage it, and a greater capacity to translate research into useful strategic insights.

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This is Agnes, a project participant, and she’s holding up a bowl full of powder that she makes by drying and grinding up the larvae from her farm. She adds a pinch of this powder to the soups and stews she cooks for her family, giving them an extra nutritional boost. I think that this is illustrative of one of the most important things I’ve been afforded by the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship: the chance to learn first-hand from the knowledge and experience of the people involved in this initiative, and, as a result, to gain fresh ideas and explore innovative avenues for implementation that I would probably never have thought of sitting at my desk in Seattle.

Click here to learn more about the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Program

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