PHD student Shandukani Netshifhefhe said many studies had been conducted on edible insects, and that termites were being underutilised.
He said the Western Cape was rich in termites, but added that he was not sure which were edible.
“I grew up in very rural areas and we grew up avoiding them, and I thought let me do this and maybe one day when I am gone other generations will be able to use this.”
His study, published in the South African Journal of Science last week, showed that edible termites contributed significantly to the livelihoods of many rural families in parts of South Africa.
“Interestingly, we found that most people said they were buying them for their nutritional value. They said they found that if they were low in iron, and ate termites, they were rich in vitamins and a good source of iron.”
They ate them for health reasons, but Netshifhefhe said poverty was also an issue as they couldn’t afford other nutrients.
“At least they get can get food as most of them are not working, and they are a source of income, too.”
He said termites were quite small, but some could grow to the size of a child’s pinkie finger.
“South Africa is not the only country in Africa where people eat termites. Countries like Ivory Coast, DRC and Namibia eat them, and we haven’t heard of any health-related issues.
"What I like is the older people who sell them said they grew up knowing that a particular species was edible. They know what species are edible and which are not.”
Netshifhefhe said that, among other things, he found termites are sources of food with a high economic and social importance, and were easily accessible by the poor.
“Studies have been conducted on edible termites in many African countries, yet comparatively little is known about them in South Africa. Preservation of indigenous knowledge used during harvesting and processing needs to be prioritised.”