What could be a more perfect creation than a snail? Oh sure, they look kind of creepy, what with their long grasping tongues and rapacious need for water … and nobody would agree with that more than the Nkongsamba farmers in Groupe d’Initiative Commune (GIC) Placanamec, who started raising snails in this Heifer-sponsored project in 2010.
“At first, we thought snails were from nasty, dark places in the forest and we didn’t want anything to do with them,” explained Daniel Nkanche, president of the GIC group. He’s right: snails live in the humid forests around Nkongsamba, Cameroon and are creatures of the night. In fact, they have been so voraciously hunted after dark, despite dangers of snake bites and violence, snails are endangered here in the wild.
But another group of farmers told the GIC Placanamec folks how rich the snails were in protein, minerals and iron; how good they were for children and for healing all kinds of maladies; and how delicious they tasted when cooked (escargot!). The group was also persuaded by the price snails fetch in the local market: $12 for a 15-liter bucket that would be snatched up immediately by eager buyers. So they applied to Heifer, whose staff was eager to protect the snails in the wild and foster an income-producing, nutrition-enhancing livestock program in this poor crossroads town where AIDS, prostitution and poverty has afflicted the population.
First, you need to build a bamboo and wood hutch with available materials — that takes a few hours. You need good clean soil; paw-paw and sweet potato leaves for the snails to eat; forage for them to burrow and lay their eggs in; fresh clean water morning and evening to give the snails energy and happiness; and some kind of barricade (like a water moat) to keep out predators like millipedes, mice, rats and red ants.
Then you sit back and let them eat, drink and reproduce. Snails are hermaphrodites, meaning the sistas/brothas are doing it for themselves, laying 5-9 eggs at a time, beginning when they are about 4 months old. Most species of snails will generally lay about 32 eggs in their lifetime, and the babies dig their way out of their shells and begin to grow in a week, fattened on a diet of ripe bananas and leaves. The snails are generally eaten after they’ve finished laying their eggs, at about 6 months to a year, when they are 150 grams or more.
But that’s just the tip of the follicle. In addition to the delicious meat they eat roasted or parboiled, the GIC folks use every single part of the snail to profit the family. The shells are ground up and eaten for the calcium to alleviate aches and joint pains, or applied to wounds to heal them faster. The waste parts of the snails are dried, ground, and used to feed chickens. And the slime … well, it’s collected into a skin serum that the women swear makes skin look younger, fresher and wrinkle-free.
My Heifer Cameroon guides snorted that no Western woman would use this product and I had to laugh. “Honey, American women would drink the stuff if they thought their skin would look like Marie’s.”
And truly, the women’s skin here looked amazing! But maybe it was just the increased nutrition and financial security the snails offer? The families are now eating about 300 snails a month, and with their snail sales, families are able to pay children’s school fees, repair a roof, afford a cell phone, or connect electricity so “my house shines in the night!” one woman claimed proudly.
As we drove away, the Heifer staff were enumerating some of the issues still facing this pilot snail project: there has been some stealing from the hutches, and farmers are not quite meeting high demand in the market. But all I could think was snails =better nutrition for the family (kids love them so much, they’ll sneak into the cages to help themselves) + increased income (especially for women) in a country where malnutrition hovers around 30% and women make less than $1/day.
And then there’s the age-defying slime.
Quite frankly, I was ready to dive into the nearest shell myself.