School of Life Sciences

Research on Edible Insects and Related Indigenous Knowledge Earns a PhD

Dr Zabentungwa Hlongwane was awarded a PhD in Ecological Sciences for her study on the diversity of edible insects and their related indigenous knowledge, focusing on KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces.

Her study was supervised by Dr Caswell Munyai and Professor Rob Slotow.

‘My interest in UKZN started when I was in Grade 11 at high school,’ said Hlongwane. ‘I was part of Ikamva Youth which offered tutoring and mentoring to disadvantaged schools in uMlazi and Chesterville. During the holidays, the tutorials were held on UKZN’s Howard College campus. Our tutors were UKZN students, and I was amazed how they helped us improve our understanding of difficult subjects such as Maths and Physics. I was inspired because I thought they knew everything and I wanted to study at UKZN.’

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Hlongwane chose to continue her postgraduate studies at UKZN because of its reputation for academic excellence, especially in terms of the support and resources it offers to conduct ground-breaking research.

‘I also loved the diverse culture,’ said Hlongwane.

Hlongwane investigated the indigenous use of edible insects as a source of food and their potential in addressing food and nutrition security in low economic status communities.

‘Entomophagy, which refers to the consumption of insects by humans, is an ancient indigenous practice that has played a significant role in human nutrition around the world, particularly in Africa,’ explained Hlongwane. ‘Edible insects might be a solution to food shortages due to their promising potential to contribute to livelihoods and mitigate food security problems around the world.’

Hlongwane found that edible insects contain a high percentage of essential nutrients such as zinc, iron, amino acids and proteins. ‘As a result, they can contribute significantly to the alleviation of protein, zinc and iron deficiencies in poor communities,’ she said.

‘Edible insects also play an important role in improving rural livelihoods. We found that trading in insects provides employment opportunities and financial support in rural areas.’

Hlongwane said that her motivation was to do research that translated into meaningful knowledge that could be used to address social needs and provide recommendations on how to fight food and nutrition insecurity in South Africa.

‘Poverty and malnutrition are major issues in developing countries and with increasing populations more people will face malnutrition,’ said Hlongwane. ‘It is important to find cheaper and sustainable nutrient rich food sources that are easily accessible to supplement diets.’

From her research findings, Hlongwane was able to provide recommendations and select edible insect types that should be prioritised for consumption.

She also recommended the best cooking methods that resulted in higher retention of nutrients. Moreover, her research provided policy recommendations on how to promote, preserve and expand the use of edible insects to improve rural livelihoods and wellbeing.

‘Dr Hlongwane’s work provides key policy recommendations for the use of insects to supplement household food insecurity and to enhance livelihoods in resource poor rural communities,’ said Slotow. ‘Not enough attention is paid to this important traditional use of our natural resources, and her work will provide impetus to this.’

Said Dr Munyai: ‘Zabentungwa is one of a kind, dedicated, always getting things done and goal driven. She has already published three of the four data chapters from her PhD, with the fourth currently under review.

‘She has a bright future ahead. She is innovative, always thinks out of the box, and is a strong, fearless, up-and-coming scientist who is ready to continue contributing to academia. All her published papers – not more than a year-and-a-half old – have already been cited more than 20 times.’

Hlongwane has been appointed a lecturer in Biology on UKZN’s Westville campus from January 2022. She will teach undergraduate courses in general biology as well as more specialised courses, with a focus on plant and algal biology and ecology. ‘I am excited about this new role,’ she said.

She thanked her supervisors and her family for their support, especially her father, ‘who has been my biggest cheerleader since day one and has always motivated me to work hard and take education seriously.’ She dedicated her PhD to her late mother and grandmother.

And what does someone who studies edible insects like to do in their spare time? Cook, of course!

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Supplied