Stellenbosch start-up wants maggots to fuel your next sports drink – Dr Michael Woods

It is estimated that the world would have to feed around 9 billion people by the year 2050. Added to the problem is the issue that animal protein is not being produced in a sustainable way as it is contributing to greenhouse gases. It has prompted scientists to look towards insects as a sustainable protein source. Insects are being used for animal feed, but a South African start-up plans to become Africa’s first company to produce protein power from insects for human consumption. The company called SUSENTO is partly owned by Stellenbosch University and they are using the black soldier fly, which is a maggot in its larva stage to produce protein which could be used as a fuel in sports drinks. Dr Michael Woods told Biznews that he believed the potential of insects as a protein source are tremendous and that consumers can get over an aversion to consuming insects. – Linda van Tilburg

We are farming Black soldier fly larvae for food production.

For animals or for humans.

For human food production. At the moment, the larvae is being used quite widely for feed production. The larvae that is being used for feed production are being reared on post consumer organic waste, such as: kitchen waste, restaurant falls and so forth. But at the Centre, we aim to rear the larvae on agricultural byproducts such as bakery waste, shell braids or expired braids and brewer’s grains – (the grains that are left over after the beer has been brewed) –  coffee grinds, pulp fruit and pulp that’s left over once you’ve made juice. Commodities in South Africa that can be registered under act 36, which regulates the animal feeds. In South Africa, we are using clean substrates to produce food grade larvae.

Just go back a little bit. You’ve got what you call larvae maggots, and you’ve got flies, just explain their lifespan.

What is really nice about the Black Soldier flies is that they don’t eat in the adult or fly stage. They only drink water. What is beneficial is that they can’t transmit disease. Whereas, with eyes flies and butterflies, they eat in their adult stage. These flies build up enough reserves during their larvae phase. It’s not necessary for them to eat in their adult or fly stages. The flies mate and lay eggs. The eggs are hatched when they are in place for the first 4 days of their life on a specially formulated diet according to the nutritional needs similar to that of chickens. We use conventional raw materials that you’d normally find in the animal feed industry such as bran –  just to give them a good head-start in their life. They are quite fragile when they are small, so we want their survival abilities to be quite high during the stage and then from there we have a 7 day grain period.

After day 5, they go into grow up period. When they are grown up until day 11, where we harvest them, and use them for food and feed purposes. You can play around to fine tune the protein ratio. If you want higher protein larvae, you harvest them at a younger age, because they only start depositing fat later in their life. If you want to harvest for  the fat purposes, you obviously harvest older larvae. 

That’s basically the life cycle. The larvae that you don’t harvest –  being very conservative at this stage – depending on your management practices and how you keep 10% of the total colony back for your breeder size. Those are the larvae that you don’t harvest. These breeder larvae also grow on especially formulate diet. So you have nice, fat, big larvae that produce big flies going to people stage and then produce speed flies that produce nice, big and fertile eggs in batches.

You’re actually thinking of putting it in something like a sports drink.

At the centre, we’ve developed a process to fractionate the larvae into the individual component. The true potential of the larvae lies in the sum of its components. If you can separate these components – fats, protein, and keratin (keratin being a fibrous type of fibre). You can use them in separate higher end markets.

The protein component – we intend to use in the sport supplementation market due to the fact that the amino-acid composition of the larvae lends itself to the market – is a very high quality protein containing all essential amino acids in the correct ratio for the needs of humans and for muscle building. It’s very high in ourselves in lysine and arginine – which is amino acids that correlate to that industry very well.  The digestability of this protein is exceptional, it’s in excess of 96%, which is a lot higher than your plant protein source. A protein is not just a protein, it contains essential amino acids and is also digestable. The protein from the Black soldier fly larvae is superior in that regard to that of plant sources.

Well, how do you overcome the ‘yuck’ factor.

That’s very true in my opinion. The same as with cattle. You don’t eat cattle, hooves, horns. You get it slaughtered and processed. That’s why we develop this insomatic fractionation protocol. We can separate the larvae into its components. The protein powder that you’d have left is a very pale colour, it doesn’t have a colour to smell or taste like anything. You can use it and flavor it as you want. It’s just basically what the Western consumers that you said were that yuck factor at this stage. If you look at your Eastern consumers through Latin America even in Africa, people have been consuming insects for quite a while. It’s just to bring that into the European and the Western markets. That’s quite a challenge. We don’t want to disguise anything. We will state the biological name of Black soldier flies. Something that’s quite interesting – just off the top of my head now – one of my fellow PhD students also started a business called Gourmet Grubb, which makes ice cream from Black soldier fly larvae. That was actually very well accommodated and accepted by the consumers around South Africa, and around the Western Cape. The ice cream was very delicious. We can consume insects, and are starting to be more open minded about eating insects. This can be attributed to the fact that global warming is such a big issue currently and something that needs to be addressed. With all the environmental benefits surrounding the insects, consumers are being more open and willing to try something like insects, as a protein and food source.

So, do you think insect protein will become a food source in the future because of global warming, and there’s a market for that but it’s obviously not the vegan market.

The harsh reality out there is that our demand for protein will increase by 70% by the year 2050. This is a value published quite widely by the FAO and our population is booming at the moment. Food has to come from somewhere. We know that conventional livestock production systems can’t satisfy this demand. Whether it’s from insect protein or single cell protein or stem cell protein it has to come from somewhere. Insects at this stage, I would say, are the furthest along and it’s definitely a viable option. It’s still an animal, it can’t really be classified as vegan. There’s a new train moving around in the building gaining traction and it’s called ento-vegan. And if you look at vegans and what drives them is not to consume meat, it’s a lot of the ethical things surrounding livestock production and the housing of animals etc. You don’t have that with insects. Another thing is that, the insects don’t contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation. All those things that vegans are also very passionate about. It’s definitely a market that I feel vegans are starting to be more open to and attracted to, and saying that a movement has started called, ento-vegan.

Just explain ento-vegan. 

So, ento being insects, and the study of insects being entomology, so ento-vegan being vegans but they do consume insects.

Getting back to the business model, you are trying to raise funds at the moment. Do you have a production facility?

So currently we do have a production facility. It’s on the university’s experimental farm. The quantities that we are producing are not that large. This will continue to be our only facility going into the future. Our chief technical officer is full time employed by the university and allows us to use the university’s facilities and lab at cost price and we are still associated with the university. We are associated with the university brand and we are about 95% to close out our funding round. We will be constructing a production facility that will be able to do around 60 tonnes of larvae a month.

Would you like to expand overseas?

There are quite a few large players focusing on the larvae for feed productions of animal food, but they are very inclusive with technology and IBM and intellectual property. We want to get as many people producing as what we can. That’s the only way that you’ll really be able to enter the market. If you want to enter the feed market, you need to really start producing large quantities, we’re not there yet. We want to roll out a business model in partnership with other people. We will bring the technical know-how and the IP to the table. Firstly, we are looking at Africa and to roll out across Africa and the world over.


How do you contain these flies?

The flies operate in cages. The thing with a Black soldier fly is they aren’t very good flyers. They look more like a wasp than they look like a fly. They don’t fly very well at all. If there is a strong wind, they really struggle. The fact that they possibly could get out, is not a major problem because it won’t get very far. They naturally occur on compost sites. You won’t find them in your houses if you go looking for them. The best chance that we would find them is on natural compost site. So your breeding setups are within cages. What you would do if you want to run intensive production is to mimic natural sunlight – mimicking the natural sunlight aiming for them to mate. You can also do it outside if you want but that means that you’ll have break in productions if you have bad weather. If you want to farm intensively you need a large force and then they bascially go to vertical farming. You have stacks of trays where you farm them and you put your substrate in the trays and then they convert this substrate source into protein and fat and you’re there when you process them.

Apparently you can also use the skeleton as a bioplastic.

That’s the most untapped market at the moment but the possibilities are endless. So it can be used to make biodegradable plastics, filters, and for the pharmaceutical industry as well. There is a wide and broad variety of applications and it’s something that we are busy with, a lot of research and development at the moment. It might be the main source of revenue in the future.

It’s something that still needs to be tapped into and explored. Another revenue stream with this process is an organic fertilizer. That’s basically the manure of the larvae that can be used as a fertilizer for good nitrogen, phosphorus to potassium ratio.  There’s not much that gets thrown away or any by-products being formed by this process.

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