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The fly makes the world go round. While many find these critters repulsive, they actually play a very important role in how we get our food we eat.
For starters, by eating decaying materials, the fly helps speed up the nutrient cycling which helps generate richer soil for plants and vegetables. It’s also a protein food for some animals — a lot of which, people eat. As much as we might hate it, it’s actually nature’s filthy little farmer.
The problem with nature is that it is slow. Way too slow for our overpopulated, capital-driven world of today. But if AgriProtein co-founder Jason Drew has his way, we could soon find a way to balance capitalism and environmentalism.
Based in Cape Town, the company uses flies to recycle organic waste into protein that can be used for animal feed.
Drew tells Ventureburn that while most of the multimillion dollar South African company’s tech is patented, it is not all that unique: “It’s just natural and perfected by Mother Nature. We simply industrialised it!”
AgriProtein was cooked up back in 2008 when it was still safe to call it a startup. It soon after raised some seed funding and started working alongside Stellenbosch University for early R&D.
Fast-forward seven years, and the innovative nutrient recycler today sits with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a handful of prestigious awards from WWF to Innovation Prize for Africa — all recognising its vision of becoming a leader in the nutrient recycling industry.
Situated outside of Cape Town in Philippi, these factory farms house around over eight billion flies each, and are just the beginning of Drew’s vision of rolling out 40 more to save the world from eating itself.
On the farms, the larvae of the flies are harvested and dried up into MagMeal which is a natural and more sustainable feed for chicken and fish. Given the over-populated world’s grand appetite for these two species, supply is woefully unsustainable. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, stocks of all species currently fished for food are predicted to collapse by 2048 if the current situation doesn’t improve.
In his latest book, The Story of The Fly and How It Could Save World, Drew writes about the opportunities staring us in the face to tip the scales in our favour:
Nearly one third of the fish we take from our seas — some fifty million tonnes a year is used in our industrial agricultural and pet food industries. Yet at the same time we dispose of hundreds of millions of tonnes of nutrient-rich waste.
But the fly larvae — as disgustingly wonderful they might be — are just the tip of the iceberg. In order to rear flies on a very large scale, AgriProtein requires organic waste so the winged creatures can lay their eggs.
By partnering with the City of Cape Town’s waste disposal department, AgriProtein now channels some of these resources to better use: rearing its flies. The company estimates that 40% of all food produced in the world is not eaten. The majority goes to landfills — which do what they do best: fill land and take up space. In one stroke, AgriProtein has helped Cape Town reduce carbon emissions, save the seas and cut back on organic landfill.
“The process is pretty interesting because it solves two problems at once: one is the sustainable production of AgriProtein, and the other is all the waste that we humans are creating,” explains co-founder David Drew.
Alongside the seven million tonnes of MagMeal being produced every day at the Cape Town farm, there are eight million tonnes of MagSoil compost together with MagOil, which is an omega rich oil for feeds.
Sustaining a business is one thing. Trying to sustain a business and the planet, well, that’s a whole different ball game.
The age of the environmental entrepreneur?
Drew describes himself an environmental entrepreneur. And that he definitely is. When he’s not running a game-changing business out to save our oceans and farms, he’s writing books or doing TEDx talks about the sustainability revolution and his journey so far.
If that’s not enough, Drew’s also chairing a bunch of other initiatives: renewable energy solutions company Sigma Solar Africa, EWF Energy which is into wind turbines, tyre tread management solutions RL Technologies, energy management and control systems business Smart Carbon Controls and the controversial, Oxitec, which seeks to beat harmful pesticides and dengue fever by exporting 20 million sterile mosquitoes a month.
A lot of the world’s greatest scientific achievements came about during wars. These were times when resources were low but concentrated, and competition is a matter of life and death. Alan Turing, for example, laid the foundation for the computer as him and his team of the country’s top cryptographers and mathematicians pulled their minds together to solve a pressing need — breaking the code of German communications during WWII. The Space Race again pushed people to land on the moon during the Cold War thereafter.
Drew believes that the world as we know it today is at war with Mother Nature, and that the more resources are stretched, the more technology and sustainability are going to meet each other.
Fishmeal production is estimated to generate carbon emissions of over 10 000 Co2 per tonne. MagMeal, on the other hand, generates about a fifth of that. This is just one example of a sustainable solution which carries a sustainable business model as well — an unlikely but beautiful match between environmentalism and capitalism.
The African advantage
“We have started plants in the Americas, Asia, Australia and the Middle East and will expand our own build and licensed plant openings over the coming years,” Drew shares. Within the next decade, the entrepreneur sees AgriProtein as the leader in the global nutrient recycling industry and envisions a total of 40 operational factories on six continents. But it’s in developing markets like Africa’s where most of the environmental impact such as AgriProtein’s could really be felt.
Similar to what is happening with mobile phones scaling faster than landlines, and potentially energy grids rolling-out faster than public infrastructures, emerging markets can become more environmentally-friendly by implementing sustainable solutions while they still can.
While AgriProtein definitely has a global vision, Drew tells Ventureburn that Africa has an advantage over the rest, going forward: “Africa can and will skip the destruction and waste of the last part of the Industrial Revolution.”