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Slow food consultancy

Entrepreneurship

Snails are widely eaten in Benin. No, not French escargots, but giant African varieties. A company selling frozen snails was looking to obtain advice on expansion, the production process and marketing.

During a visit to the country, the country coordinator for Benin was introduced to an entrepreneurial couple who had previously lived in America, and had returned to Benin. Unable to find employment in their own field, they had decided to start their own business. Today, they purchase and process snails, freeze them and sell them to restaurants and private individuals. The demand is tremendous; they just can’t get enough of them!”

Passion for snails

The entrepreneurs in question were looking to obtain advice on expansion, the production process and marketing. In the Netherlands, PUM went in search of the closest thing they could find to a snail expert. Did that mean looking for someone in the meat or the fish sector? Snails, it turned out are neither meat nor fish. The trail led to PUM expert Theodore Peter Vlaar and his cousin and snail farmer Jacques de Bock, resident in Belgium. Both cousins, it turns out, have a passion for snails. The questions from the entrepreneurs were all about production and sales. How could they be expanded? Was export to Nigeria or perhaps even the US a valid option? Following careful preparation, cousin Theodore Vlaar, himself an ICT specialist, travelled to Benin. “The snails themselves are found in the forest, or farmed on a small scale,” he explained. “A snail farm in Benin is set up along the lines of snail farming in Roman times. A small island is created, with a ditch dug around it, so that the snails cannot escape. On the island there are a number of (banana) trees which the snails can eat. Snails are also grown by local women in darkened sheds, and fed every day with vegetable waste. They are then sold still alive, at the market. The Achatina (or African giant snail) is recognised throughout Africa as a delicacy, and is a regular item on the menu on special occasions.”

Snail comfort

Frozen snails are a popular product. Many are sold to fish wholesalers or in small batches to supermarkets. The entrepreneurs operate a single chest freezer and a generator (in case the power fails). The snails can grow up to 25 centimetres in size, and live to be three or four years old. The product is attractive for the customer, including numerous restaurants, because it is supplied already cleaned and ready to use. In Africa too, consumers are increasingly attracted by ready meals, and many young people are no longer conversant with the delicate and time-consuming process of preparing the snails. Instead they purchaser washed and ready-to-eat snails at the supermarket. The sales area at present covers Benin, Nigeria and to a smaller extent Togo and Ghana. In principle, however the sales market can be expanded to include the whole of Western Africa.

Focus

The entrepreneur was keen to start his own farm, but the recommendation from PUM was that he would be better to focus on his natural strengths: processing and sales. It would be more efficient to sign direct purchase contracts with farming cooperatives and women from rural areas. The entrepreneur had no reason to fear that his ‘producers’ would compete with him, even if he shared his knowledge with them. Indeed: by sharing his knowledge, he could only boost the quality and bio safety of his products. After all, direct purchase from farmers and local women offers clear advantages in the form of a guaranteed, sustainable form of income. He nonetheless expressed the fear that cash-rich investors could steal his idea of freezing the snails. For the time being, this method of selling the product is still unique in West Africa. 

Slow food

With these questions in mind, the company was closely examined for two weeks. And the various ambitions investigated. It was decided that export to Europe or America was completely unrealistic because of the strict food safety requirements, but Nigeria was clearly an option. Theodore Vlaar’s expertise and his thorough preparations, including contacts with Dutch companies specialising in the freezing and packaging of slow food products, meant he was able to provide the local businessman with a great deal of valuable knowledge. What exactly is a snail? What possible conservation methods are there, and how should you handle the product? Technical improvements and the possibilities of ‘organic’ farming were also discussed. In the framework of the marketing strategy, there was even time for e-marketing, with the setting up of a website. 

How do you become a snail expert? Jacques de Bock is a chemical engineer, with twenty years’ work experience at Johan Enschedé, the company responsible for printing our banknotes. At the age of 55 he ended up in Belgium. He wanted to do ‘something relating to nature’ and in 2009 started a snail farm. His cousin Theodore (PUM expert) helped him with his website, writing, ‘In the heart of Belgium’s magnificent Voerstreek, famous for its walking routes, Jacques de Bock established his snail farm, in January 2009. Here, he grows two types of snails in special enclosures, tunnels and open parkland. At the end of the summer the snails are ready for consumption.’  Jacques de Bock explained, “At present, there are seven snail farmers in the Netherlands and seven in Flanders, most of whom I have ‘trained’. You have to identify your own market including restaurants and private individuals, and lots of people from Southern Europe.”  De Bock’s snail colony has 80,000 inhabitants.

Every part of the giant snail can be commercially utilised:

  • A 125 gram 'snail steak' is a real delicacy

  • The shell is used as decoration but can also be finely ground as calcium powder

  • The offal can be used for mixing into animal feed (for pigs and chickens)

  • Snail slime is well known for its use in the cosmetics industry and as a healing agent for small wounds