While the shea tree is known for its nuts, used to produce a butter to which myriad benefits have been attributed (skin and nutritional, in particular), much less is known about the caterpillars that feed on its leaves. And this is precisely what a young man from Burkina Faso has set out to change.
“This insect seems insignificant, and yet it has the highest protein content of all foods in Burkina Faso,” maintains Kahitouo Hien, an agrochemist and founder of FasoPro, a startup that uses shea caterpillars to develop nutritional products. This young man is convinced that the “chitoumou” (shea caterpillar in the Dioula language) can play a key role in combating malnutrition, a scourge that continues to wreak havoc in Burkina Faso.
Does the idea seem crazy to you? Yet in Burkina Faso, a country in the Sahel region where half of the children are malnourished, shea caterpillars are an increasingly common part of the diet. Kahitouo hails from the upper basin region in the western part of the country, “where shea caterpillar consumption is high. But it was while I was pursuing studies in biochemistry at the University of Ouagadougou (in Burkina Faso’s capital) that I discovered the true nutritional potential of this insect that contains up to 63% protein, and is rich in iron and omega 3,” he explains.
Once he earned his master’s degree, Kahitouo enrolled at the Institut international d’ingénierie de l’eau et de l’environnement (2iE) [International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering], an engineering school in Ouagadougou that provides entrepreneurial training to its students and has an incubator for startups that offers a number of graduates the opportunity to start up their own business. “Our mission is to plant the seed of entrepreneurship in our students, nurture it, and help them ensure that it bears beautiful fruit,” explains Lisa Barutel, head of entrepreneurship at 2iE, a school that is committed to training “innovative engineer-entrepreneurs” (editor’s note: 2iE receives financial support from the World Bank).
So it was during his time as a student at this institution that Kahitouo’s idea, with assistance from one of his student friends, morphed into a social enterprise project. Caterpillars, which are collected between June and September, are a seasonal food that is dried and sold in markets under sometimes questionable hygienic conditions. Kahitouo believes that once the caterpillars have been dried and packaged in sterilized packets, he will be able to market caterpillars all year round.
“We are not trying to transform people’s everyday lives; instead, we are guided by everyday life in an effort to find a solution to combat the scourge of malnutrition. And we are doing this simply by packaging raw caterpillars in a way that ensures that their nutritional properties are preserved,” he says.
But this young entrepreneur’s ambitions don’t end there. He has set himself another goal that is especially dear to him: combating poverty in rural areas and creating jobs for women, because it is rural women who are rearing the caterpillars.
More than EUR 10,000 collected on KissKissBankBank
The challenge: raising funds to finance the pilot phase of his project. “No donor will place their confidence in you if you haven’t proved yourself on the market, but in order to prove yourself on the market you must already have launched a number of products,” Kahitouo says.
In 2012, FasoPro created a buzz by winning the prize for best social startup (and a check for $10,000) at the annual Global Social Venture Competition organized by ESSEC and the University of California, Berkeley. After joining the startup universe, Kahitouo discovered crowdfunding, a booming phenomenon in the United States. In early 2014, this young man launched a campaign on KissKissBankBank — a crowdfunding website for raising funds from Internet users — and asked for EUR 10,000 to finance the purchase of caterpillars and their packaging in special packets that guarantee the quality of the products.
The concept is gaining traction. FasoPro and its shea caterpillars have won over 209 persons who have contributed a total of EUR 10,661 to help Kahitouo execute his project. To thank them, Kahitouo has undertaken to send packets of caterpillars to persons who have contributed EUR 40 and above. As a result of this successful fundraising effort, FasoPro will be able to begin marketing its first product, “Toumou’Délice,” in 200g, 500g, and 1 kg packets in September 2014. Who knows? Perhaps soon you will be seeing FasoPro caterpillars on the shelves in your grocery store!
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