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Want mopane worms on that pizza? SA entrepreneur is changing the face of masonja

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Her product range includes whole mopane worms that can be cooked or enjoyed as a dry snack. She created mopane worm flour that can be used in savoury biscuits, sweet chocolate protein bars, cereals, or smoothies. She even uses mopane worms as a topping on pizza.

It’s a delicacy that could be a protein powerhouse – mopane worms. Picture: Supplied/Twitter

MOPANE worms are enjoyed by many throughout the African continent and now an entrepreneur is about to change everything you may think about this delicacy.

While some may consider mopane worms as exotic or as a meal that belongs on a reality show like Fear Factor, the food commonly colloquially known as masonja is a staple for many in southern Africa and even considered a delicacy in countries such as Namibia.

One entrepreneur has taken it upon herself to change the narrative around the edible “worms”. South African chemical engineer Wendy Vesela, through her company Matomani, has found a way to bring mopane worms to a whole new demographic through her product offering.

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Her product range includes whole mopane worms that can be cooked or enjoyed as a dry snack. She created mopane worm flour that can be used in savoury biscuits, sweet chocolate protein bars, cereals, or smoothies. She even uses mopane worms as a topping on pizza.

Vesela makes it a point to clarify that despite their name, mopane worms are actually not worms at all, but the caterpillar of a species of emperor moth known as Gonimbrasia Belina.

“We need to educate people that this isn’t worm, this is food,” she said.

Raised in a small Limpopo village, mopane worms were an integral part of Vesela’s childhood.

She learned the art of harvesting them from her parents, whom she accompanied deep into the Mopane forests in Limpopo, after which the caterpillar is named.

Entrepreneur Wendy Vesela wants to change the narrative around mopane worms and have them recognised as a super food. Picture: Supplied/Instagram

Farming the caterpillars is less taxing on the environment than producing beef, because it takes far fewer leaves to produce worms than it does feed, making them a more sustainable source of protein.

Sustainability is at the core of what Vesela and her business represent.

“What has happened over the years is that there has been an over-harvest of the mopanes,” she said.

“People don’t care about the tree, the mopane tree. People don’t care about tomorrow they want to harvest as much as possible.

“We need to regenerate the population of the mopane worms to ensure the life cycle of the emperor moth continues, for future generations to enjoy what I’ve enjoyed.

“What I want to see for the business is us having our own farms, farming mopanes. For us to grow mopanes in-house,” Vesela added.

Mopane worms also pack a serious nutritional punch, consisting of 60% protein and high levels of iron and calcium.

Sylven Masoga, from the department of human nutrition and dietetics at the University of Limpopo, says there are multiple health benefits that come from consuming masonja.

Speaking to East Coast Radio he said: “Mopane worms contain high amounts of iron, calcium, and phosphorus. Iron is required for the haemoglobin component contained within the red blood cells. These red blood cells are responsible for, among other things, the transportation of nutrients and oxygen to tissues around the body.”

Vesela understands the general reluctance by members of the public to try masonja, but she believes that her growing product range is the key to winning sceptics over.

“We understand that it might not be normal for a potential customer to be eating masonja, but we have introduced a different way of consuming masonja. There is an energy bar, taste the energy bar where you can’t see the masonja, and usually after people taste they want to try the actual mopane worm,” she said.

Vesela’s company has partnered with local communities in her village in Limpopo to create employment opportunities for the local residents.

She says “I come from a village where I’ve seen poverty and poverty is still there today. My reason for doing this is to try and fight poverty, at least in the part of the world that I come from.”

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