Women sell snails in the market in Kumasi, Ghana. Women sell snails in the market in Kumasi, Ghana. Women sell snails in the market in Kumasi, Ghana. (Photo: Petr Kosina / Flickr)

How African women are turning snails into gold

Women-run hatcheries in Ghana offer economic empowerment and sustenance.

Snails are known as a delicacy in the U.S. and in some European countries, but they have long been a staple of the traditional diet in the African nation of Ghana. They're used in everything from soups to kebabs, and Ghanaians consume some 33 million pounds of snails per year, but demand far outweighs local supply. Now a pair of scientists are teaching women how to raise snails as a renewable food source and as a source of economic independence.

Environmental scientist Mildred Quaye and agricultural biotechnologist Dr. Lydia Quansah have been setting up women-run snail farms in rural areas of Ghana. Their project is funded by a grant from Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment. The Israeli university has also provided instructors and students to work on projects in Ghana and other sub-Saharan African nations for nearly six decades.

“Our interest in snails arose when we first saw young ladies selling fried snails by the road side. Our interaction with them revealed that snails are scarce and expensive during the lean season,” Quaye told From the Grapevine.

Snail kebabs are a popular street food in Ghana and other African countries.Snail kebabs are a popular street food in Ghana and other African countries. (Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

Heliculture is the science and occupation of raising snails for food, and the practice is quickly becoming popular for occupational training of African women. Snails are relatively easy to raise and feed on vegetables and fruits. They are also hermaphrodites, which means that both male and female snails reproduce.

While the initial cost of setting up a snail hatchery can be expensive if a farmer wants to use concrete pens like the ones Quaye and Quansah are using, snails can also be raised in simple structures like baskets or old drums.

The concrete pens can hold 100 hatchlings, and Quaye and Quansah train the women on the management practices involved in handling the snails. They began by setting up two hatcheries consisting of 16 pens and plan to establish more hatcheries in the future.

Snails can be high in protein and low in fat.Snails, like these at a market in Ghana, can be high in protein and low in fat. (Photo: Petr Kosina/Flickr)

“Snails are not difficult to raise and manage because they feed on kitchen leftovers and leafy greens from the field,” Quaye said. The challenge is to keep the environment in the pens cool and clean to prevent insect-born diseases.

While snails can live up to 10 years in their natural habitat, it only takes two to three months before young embryonic snails are ready for sale to the market. That means it’s only a short time before the farmers begin to see a return on their investment.

Currently the snails are being sold fresh, but down the road the scientists hope to extend their shelf life using the latest agricultural biotechnology methods.

The project was recently recognized at the 2nd Pears Foundation Alumni Symposium in Plant Sciences at Hebrew University’s campus in Israel; both Quaye and Quansah are alumni of that program. The international symposium brings Israeli and worldwide experts to exchange ideas about agro-technologies that contribute to global food security.

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