Also from GAN

Turning maggots into cash
Fri, 09 Mar 2012 10:24
Nelly Nyagah

David Drew, director of Agriprotein Technologies

Most scientists who work with flies are trying to develop products that can kill them effectively. One South African company has changed the tide: it is converting maggots into alternative protein source for livestock and fish feed.

“The world urgently needs new and sustainable sources of protein for livestock and fish feed. We have found a perfect alternative. It is called Magmeal and it is made of maggots. It is not particularly a very attractive topic but the product is natural and what chickens eat in the wild.”

David Drew is enthusiastic as I meet him at his Cape Town office to discuss his sustainable animal and fish nutrition business in South Africa. His company, Agriprotein Technologies, is part of a new industry called nutrient recycling that is using organic waste to create protein. This protein is expected to supply the increasing demand for animal feed, as current sources primarily from the sea are limited.

“Four years ago I was discussing fishmeal with my brother, Jason, who is an environmentalist, and two other people. The critical question was: what are the substainable alternatives to fishmeal? We can’t feed our livestock beef and lamb - it is too expensive. We can’t feed them chicken - it just doesn’t work. We currently feed them fish meal, which used to be the leftovers of fish but now it’s almost half of the fish that we take out of the sea,” says Drew.

“If you think about it, chickens are not meant to eat fish. They can’t swim, because that’s what ducks do, they can’t eat fish because that is what sea gulls do. Chickens have funny little feet so that they can scratch the ground to eat bugs. Therefore, we thought, well, we need to feed chicken something because we are running out of fishmeal. That is how Agriprotein Technologies came about.”

The fly is king at Agriprotein’s pilot plant near Cape Town. The production process starts with breeding stock flies in 22 sterile cages, each holding over 750 000 flies. A single female fly can lay between 750 to over 1 000 eggs per week, which will then hatch into larvae. Larvae go through three life stages in a 72-hour period, and are harvested just becoming pupae. The harvested larvae are then dried on a fluidised bed dryer, milled into flake form and packed according to customers’ preferences. 

It has taken a lot of time to get to this stage, says Drew. Research and development with the University of Stellenbosch Animal Nutritional Department started over three years ago. Initially, the challenge was to get the flies to live together in huge volumes and lay eggs in one place, and to match the waste product type to the larvae type.

“Most scientists that are involved with flies are trying to kill them or develop products that can effectively kill them. Agriprotein has a team of scientists who are trying to go against the current. We have got there. We can make Magmeal,” says Drew.

The challenge now is that Agriprotein Technologies can’t make Magmeal in the volumes that are needed to meet the industry needs. The potential big users would need vast quantities of the product - an estimated 1 000 tons per month. The company is trying to not supply the market with small quantities and rather focus on improving internal processes, which would facilitate large-scale production.

“We can make 100 kilos here and there but to be a serious business, we need to be making much more per day. This is what we are busy finalising - a production process that will allow us to make about 100 tons of larvae per day. This is scheduled to start at the end of 2012. We are currently raising money for our first big factory - a $10-million asking. This is a real step up in terms of financing for us, and we have very interested partners,” says Drew.

Agriprotein’s researchers are currently working on two types of wastes: human waste (faeces) and abattoir blood, which is its main source of stock because its nutrient-dense.

Says Drew: “This is what happens in nature: A lion kills a springbok. As soon as that springbok is lying dead and its blood is being smelt, flies come and lay their eggs in the flesh and then those larvae eat the blood and the flesh of the springbok. The larvae will then grow over two or three days and go into the ground to either become flies, or to be eaten by things like chickens. It is actually a natural process to use animal blood as feed for larvae."

Globally, 2.6 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation. The resulting disease and water pollution cause 1.7 million deaths and loss of $84-billion in worker productivity each year. In Africa, sanitation and cleanliness especially in urban areas are major obstacles to better health. Because of the technical and financial challenges facing many local governments, they are unable to effectively manage waste. According to sanitation company, Sanergy, in Kenya’s slums, 8 million people lack access to adequate sanitation. Agriprotein sees opportunities in these challenges, and is exploring innovative ways of funding or setting up small entrepreneurs to turn human waste into useful and sustainable products.

“We plan to work with Sanergy, a Kenyan company that produces toilets. The Sanergy toilet provides about 30kgs of faeces when it is full. We will take that out and put eggs on it, grow black soldier fly larvae, which is slightly different from other flies, and at the end of the process faeces has been turned into a good compost that doesn’t smell at all. The other half of it is protein (the larvae), which can be fed to chicken. The small-scale entrepreneur can either sell the protein feed and the fertiliser, or use it for himself to grow chicken and vegetables,” says Drew.

On a bigger scale, the opportunity would be for bigger entrepreneurs to create a central facility where people can sell human waste. Ideally, this type of investor would be subsidised by the local government to grow the larvae.

“It really is not a pretty business but it is what bugs do. If you take a pile of shit and it is full of maggots, it doesn’t smell at all, because it is neutralised. It becomes a beautiful soil conditioner,” says Drew.

So, how difficult is it to communicate the sustainable animal feed production message in Africa, and what is required to encourage investment?

“People are aware of sustainability and are crying out for it. Some guy called me from Malawi the other day and said: ‘I need your product but I need to be able to grow my meal here because at the moment I have to rely on my fish meal arriving from the port. If there is a logistics problem and supplies don’t arrive, 140 000 chicken would die because I have nothing else to feed them. So if I can have control of my feed stock – having a fly and larvae farm right next to where I am, then I can rear larvae to feed my chicken at the point of use.’”

As Agriprotein works to scale-up production of Magmeal, the company is also partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and the University of Stellenbosch Animal Nutritional Department to create micro-production facilities for very small entrepreneurs in which they can produce Magmeal.

“I mean a guy and a bucket making larvae to feed maybe 10-15 chicken that he or she then sells at the local market. This philanthropic type of production roll-out will boost the sustainability of people’s lives in Africa,” says Drew.

Magmeal has been well-received in South Africa and beyond, and Agroprotein Technologies is looking forward to serving the industry with an entirely organic, sustainable and renewable alternative to fish meal.

Woolworths store in Cape Town’s Central Business District is directly opposite Drew’s office. The retailer is currently implementing an ambitious African expansion strategy. I ask Drew where he sees Agriprotein Technologies in five years.

“We will have a set of factories across the world making sustainable protein from waste sources. The top countries on the roll-out plan are South Africa, Germany (the German government has offered Agriprotein one million euros to set up a plant), UK and the United States, which has huge opportunities for us because of its big livestock industry,” says Drew.

Drew, a British national, is a serial entrepreneur who recognised the potential for growth in Africa long before the continent became ‘in vogue’ with international investors. In 2003, he established Dialogue Group, a very successful call centre business in South Africa, which he later listed on the JSE.

Would he employ the same strategy with Agriprotein? Drew chuckles heartily and turns to his computer to show me pictures of his three lovely sons. And flies and maggots.