Another helping of insect protein? Yes, please!

He spotted the potential of the "emerging insect economy" while he was doing his master's degree. Now economist Lowell Scarr is running a business with black soldier flies, fast becoming famous for their promise to substitute expensive animal feeds

For the love of living things and economics, Lowell Scarr founded Nambu in 2018 in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape. Photo: Supplied/John Hogg

For the love of living things and economics, Lowell Scarr founded Nambu in 2018 in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape. Photo: Supplied/John Hogg

As the agriculture industry is trying to find ways to deal with the ever-increasing prices of animal feed, utilising alternatives like locally farmed insect protein is looking more and more attractive. 

Economist Lowell Scarr spotted the potential in this “emerging insect economy” and founded Nambu, a company that produces protein-rich black soldier flies (BSF) for livestock feed.  

Scarr is the chief executive officer of the company, and he is completing his PhD in economics at Rhodes University. The focus of his work is on the factors that contribute to success in agribusiness and other businesses that operate within a rural context. 

He chats to Food For Mzansi about the importance of BSF and why farmers should consider making use of insect protein as a substitute for current livestock feeds. 

Zolani Sinxo: Give us some background about your company. And why the interest in BSF? 

Lowell Scarr: Based on the work that I was completing for my master’s degree, I was made aware of the opportunity in the emerging insect economy. At first I thought about producing insects for human food, but I quickly realised that there’s still a big yuck factor and that people are not ready to consume insects.  

I then started looking at insects for production as animal feed, which is what brought me to the black soldier fly, because it solves a dual challenge. 

The South African feed sector currently imports soya meal from the Americas and we also use a lot of fish meal. Both of those sources are unsustainable.  

How does BSF solve the challenges in the animal feed industry? 

We have a challenge of food waste in South Africa and globally. We waste about 30% of the food that is produced, which means there’s something fundamentally wrong. When we look at the rates of hunger and malnutrition throughout the world, the data is overwhelming.   

So, I basically started looking at BSF as a viable alternative protein, particularly for agriculture, mainly for the poultry and pork industries. There’s an increased demand for protein sources as more people move into the global middle class. As they do so, they tend to demand more meat, milk and eggs.  

Most of those products need feed to be produced but uncertainties such as climate change, global economic risks and the Covid-19 pandemic, makes it rather difficult to obtain feed at a cheaper price.   

When we have these sorts of instances or situations where there are global supply linkages that lead to shutdowns in the supply of certain feeds or foodstuffs, [it] creates a problem of food insecurity.  

Black soldier flies (BSF) are a source of protein and can be used as a substitute for animal feed . Photo. Supplied/Food For Mzansi

In terms of biosecurity, are BSF safe to use as feed? 

If there are correct management systems in place, they are safe to use. For example if you’re using meat waste in your facility to produce a black soldier and larvae to feed chickens, they need to be sterilised to reduce the bacterial load to prevent any diseases.  

Being a natural component of [the livestock’s] diet, a lot of the nutrients are biologically highly available and [this] leads to higher rates of feed conversion. 

The feed can be used live, particularly for poultry and pigs, as well as for wildlife or for exotic pets.  

It can also be dried – you can either then use the dried feed as is or you can further process it into a protein meal.  

Could they be a solution to the rising prices of animal feed in South Africa?  

Absolutely yes. That is specifically one of the reasons why I started producing them in the first place. Imported feed leads to a lot of exchange rate risks.  

[BSF is a possible] low-cost option. However, it does depend on the production model used. We have opted for a very low-tech and low-cost model so that we can drive the affordability for the local feed sector. However, there are other players out there that have got different models that speak more to the export market for high value. It really depends on your production system and what your goals are as a company.   

This is a relatively new product on the South African market, and as such there is a limit to the uptake, because farmers are very conservative and price sensitive. There’s a lot of demand and producers of the BSF are seeing positive results. We believe the industry is going to continue growing significantly but it will take time.  

ALSO READ: Reporting for duty: black soldier flies to farmers’ rescue

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