Late in Life with Locusts
Having spent her career as a special needs educator, in 2012 Scilla Allen bought a farm in the countryside. She expected her later decades to be peaceful.
She never expected to end up shaking locusts out of trees in the dead of night in her sixties.
Throughout much of 2020 and 2021, amid all the chaos of covid, swarms of desert locusts devastated massive swaths of East Africa and the Middle East. A lifelong Kenyan, Allen witnessed the swarms firsthand as they passed through her community.
While the conventional response to locust swarms is pesticides, Laura Stanford of The Bug Picture decided she had a better idea. An entrepreneur in the insect protein space, which is growing worldwide as traditional animal feeds and protein sources become increasingly unsustainable, Stanford saw the swarms as an opportunity.
In partnership with the Danish Emergency Fund, Concern and Sapcone, she began piloting an innovative solution: paying local farmers to capture the swarms while they were sleeping, and then turning the insects into feed for chickens. As a local farmer who was already working with insects and The Bug Picture, they asked her to join the project.
“I’m a cancer survivor, and I’m over 60, so at first, when they asked me to get involved, I didn’t think rolling around the Kenyan countryside chasing locusts during a pandemic sounded very sensible,” she explained.
She wound up doing it anyway.
For six weeks, she served as a project manager, driving around the country following the swarms. Each night when the insects settled, the team would reach out to the surrounding farmers and communities and try to gather a group to spend the night collecting.
“I can tell you, following the swarms was not easy,” she said. Sometimes they would settle in valleys, on mountains, or on private property whose owner was not eager to welcome a crowd of civilian harvesters.
At one point, she and many of her neighbors were in a forest near her farm harvesting a swarm when they ran into a bunch of elephants.
“The elephants decided pretty quickly they didn’t want us there,” she said.
She is now processing the last of the locusts, as the swarms have retreated for now and covid lockdowns restrict travel throughout Kenya.
She’s been feeding the locust protein animal feed to her chickens.
“My eggs at the moment are really tasty,” she says, laughing.
Allen’s work with insects is not limited to locusts. She has also been rearing a community of black soldier flies, which offer an innovative approach to waste management and animal feed. The flies feed on organic waste, and their eggs can be boiled, dried, and used in feed for livestock—replacing more unsustainable sources of protein like soy or fishmeal.
In addition to all this work with insects, Allen is also pursuing her PhD in Educational Psychology online at Walden University.
When I asked her if I could write a story about her, she suggested the headline: “Mad old bag farming bugs on the equator!”