Mopane worms, also known as madora, have long been a reliable and affordable source of protein in Zimbabwe’s rural Matabeleland region. However, recent times have seen a dramatic shift. Once plentiful, these crunchy caterpillars are now a luxury enjoyed primarily by the wealthy.

The change has been swift. Just last year, a cup of madora cost a mere US$0.50, with a gallon reaching a maximum of US$10. There are four gallons in a bucket so the price for a bucket was below US$40 most of the time. By December 2023, prices had climbed by 50%, and the trend continued upwards. Today, finding madora is a challenge in itself, and those lucky enough to score some pay a hefty price. Small metal cups can go for US$3, while a gallon might set you back a staggering US$40, with eager buyers willing to pay.

This price surge isn’t just significant; it’s erratic. Unlike the standardised pricing of the past, madora prices now fluctuate wildly. This is because many sellers are capitalising on the shortage by offloading old stock at inflated rates. These are individuals who simply happened to have a sizeable stash before the drought struck and are now cashing in.

From Affordable Protein to Exclusive Treat

The price hike has transformed madora from a budget-friendly protein source to a fancy indulgence. At over US$3 for a small packet, these insects now cost more than half a chicken. This shift is confirmed by vendors themselves, who report a clientele primarily consisting of well-dressed individuals from affluent suburbs like Vainona, Borrowdale, and Glen Lorne.

The impact extends beyond individual purchases. Previously, some street food vendors offered a plate of sadza (cornmeal porridge) with madora for just US$0.50, a meal limited to low-cost eateries. Today, the situation is reversed. Downtown Harare restaurants rarely offer this dish anymore, as few customers are willing to pay US$5 for a small portion. Mopane worms with sadza have become a luxury reserved for upscale establishments like Gava restaurants.

Shifting Marketplaces

The drought hasn’t just affected prices; it’s also reshaped where madora are sold. Mbare Musika, once the bustling hub for mopane worms, now sees fewer vendors. The high prices make madora a slow-moving product there, prompting sellers to seek alternative sources of income. If you’re on the hunt for madora these days, look for them in high-end supermarkets located in wealthier suburbs. Gone are the days of buying madora by the Cup; these stores present them in fancy packaging, with prices to match.

For as long as I can remember, madora have always been like kapenta, ishwa, mbeva, and locusts – all once common protein sources for rural communities. However, drought-induced shortages have pushed some of them towards becoming exclusive delicacies for the privileged. One lingering question remains: are the struggling communities that traditionally harvest these insects benefiting from the price hikes? With fewer worms to sell this year, it’s a concern worth pondering.