Young researcher aims to produce cough syrup from snail slime

When most people see snail slime, “Eew!” is usually the thought that runs through their minds. Others might even flinch at the sight of a snail near them. When it comes to Dr Paul Kinoti, however, snails might have just earned him international recognition among trendsetters in research.

The Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in Nairobi, Kenya, has just received a KES127 million (about US$973,000) grant to help fund Kinoti’s project which entails producing cough syrup from the slimy creatures.

Kinoti is a lecturer in the horticulture and food security department at JKUAT. He specialises in non-conventional farming systems – systems that employ modified or unique farming methods in crop and animal production.

The grant, awarded by the Cherasco Worldwide Institute of Snail Breeding in Italy, will fund a two-phased research project aimed at producing cough syrup meant for children under the age of five years.

The first phase, which should take two years, will involve research on snail slime, identifying the best snail species for production, and encouraging farmers to breed the specific snails. The grant is also expected to help empower women and young people by providing them with employment opportunities through snail farming. The second phase will involve manufacturing the cough syrup once it has been approved by the Kenya Food and Drugs Authority.

From skin care to fertiliser

According to Kinoti, snails can be used in a wide variety of products including animal feeds, skin-care products, pharmaceuticals and fertiliser. And, as a food security specialist, one of his goals is to encourage people to include snails in their diet, given that they are rich in proteins and iron. Across the globe, especially in Asia, parts of Europe and West Africa, snails are a delicacy.

The snail products are manufactured at JKUAT. Local farmers supply the snail slime (mucin). The institution offers three-day courses to these farmers on how to rear snails and extract their slime which they later sell to the institution for profit. They charge a fee of KES1,200 (US$10) per litre for grade A slime, KES850 (US$6.50) per litre for grade B, and KES650 (US$5) for grade C slime.

The snail species that is commonly used for slime production is the African giant land snail (Achatina fulica), which produces up to 4ml of slime per snail. It takes about 250 of these giant snails to produce a litre of slime, which is extracted once each week.

Kinoti said an investment of KES20,000 (US$153) can earn a snail farmer between KES50,000 (US$383) and KES100,000 (US$766) per month once the snails start to produce their slime, which is usually at the age of four months.

Kinoti was introduced to snail farming while working for his PhD in Austria, where he was hosted by a snail farmer.

“When I came back, I realised that snail farming was an area that had not yet been exploited in Kenya and that is how I decided to embark on research, mainly geared towards value addition. From there, I came up with different products such as fertiliser, animal feeds and skin care products,” he told University World News. The products have been certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards and are already on the market.

Kenyans have yet to see snails as food

Where snails as a food source are concerned, Kinoti said: “A lack of awareness is the main reason why Kenyans do not see snails as a source of food for themselves, and getting them to accept it will be a difficult task. This is why we are using a simpler approach – encouraging farmers to take up snail farming so that they can get used to the idea of having snails around them.”

The cough syrup idea came about while Kinoti was on a trip to Kumasi, Ghana, where he saw children with the flu being treated with “strange concoctions”.

“In 2019, I got an opportunity to do some field research on snails in Kumasi. This was also during the cold season in Ghana and a lot of children were suffering from the flu. The strange thing I noticed there was that, rather than the ginger or lemon tea that we are used to when someone gets the flu, parents were collecting snail slime and mixing it with [a little] honey which they gave to the children as a remedy,” Kinoti said. “This stuck in my mind and, when I came back, I decided to do more research on it.”

The project involves several experts from different departments to help oversee its success. These experts include animal scientists, food scientists, health scientists and technical staff who help run the snail farm. The project also involves other major institutions such as the Kenya National Museum, whose work is to help them identify the best type of snails for slime production, and the Kenya Wildlife Service, which is the main stakeholder and body that provides the licence they need to farm snails in Kenya.

The grant is also helping to fund two masters students at JKUAT who are following in Kinoti’s footsteps.