Susento - how will we feed 9 billion people in 2050?

The world population is growing at an alarming rate, and it is estimated that in 2050, around 9 billion people will live on a planet which is increasingly struggling to accommodate this growing population. Furthermore, much of the world’s current protein is not being produced in a sustainable way and will therefore not be able to meet the expected 70% increase in demand for animal protein by 2050. One cannot help to wonder: where will our food come from?

From insects, says the Susento team, a potential start-up company which is currently being incubated by Innovus. It is not too far-fetched, given the facts that insects grow at a very fast rate, and that the edible insect market is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 23.8% from 2018 to 2023, and is projected to reach a value of USD 2.8 billion by 2030.

The team, Dr Elsje Pieterse a senior lecturer at the Department of Animal Sciences at SU, Dr Michael Woods, co-founder and CEO, and Dr Neill Goosen, senior lecturer in the Department of Process Engineering at SU, launched Susento earlier this year in their quest to develop and produce a sustainable protein source from insects for both human and animal consumption.

Dr Pieterse has more than 25 years of experience in the insect mass rearing field. To process the insects to a high-quality insect protein powder, Susento uses a fractionation process which Dr Woods developed as part of his PhD research under the co-supervision of Dr Goosen – a process engineer with nine years of experience with the hydrolysis process that is used for the fractionation.

Sustainable source

“Significantly less land is needed to breed insects. Furthermore, one can produce

7 000 times more protein per hectare than with soy, which is the most used source of protein currently in the world, although it is not a sustainable source,” says Michael.

“The pressure that the soy industry is placing on our rain forests with regards to deforestation can be addressed by insect production for protein. Insects also emit little to no greenhouse gasses, compared to that of conventional livestock such as cattle. Currently, 25% of all wild fish that is caught goes towards the production of fish meal and is fed to livestock, including farmed fish. This is also placing immense pressure on this natural resource. Again, insects as feed could help address this problem. Insects make up 40% of the diets of wild trout, and therefore it makes complete sense to feed farmed fish using insects.”

“Our product, a high-quality protein powder which can be used in any high protein product, is sustainable – external water is not even used in the insect rearing process. Using insects, water is recirculated, and then it enters the system again. For soy, one needs water to grow the crop,” explains Dr Pieterse. 

The Black Solder Fly

They use the black soldier fly: a very passive insect that does not fly but spends much time in the shade. It is not harmful and does not transmit any diseases. The team found a colony of these flies on a Stellenbosch fruit farm. They feed on most organic waste streams Susento will be rearing black soldier fly on feed grade agricultural byproducts such as brewers spent grain from the brewing industry and fruit pulp from the juicing industry.

According to Dr. Goosen, the fractionation revolves around enzyme technology. The larvae consist of 3 main components: fat, protein and chitin. By taking advantage of the properties of each of these components, they can separate these components and thereby sell them individually, at higher prices than if they remain as part of the whole larvae.

“The enzymes specifically solubilise the proteins into water, and during the enzymatic action, the oils are released while the chitin remains unchanged. The proteins are now found in a water phase, the oil floats on top of this phase and the chitin remains in a solid phase. Through the use of established separation methods, these components are then separated and further processed,” explains Dr. Goosen.

The future

The team currently produces insects at the University’s Mariendahl experimental farm. They are in discussion with investors and possible partners to upgrade the facility which will enable them to process 10 tons of feedstock per day, which should convert into 1,5 to 2 tons of insects per day.

“We are currently one of only a few companies worldwide doing what we do – and also the only university in Africa being involved in this kind of research currently,” says Michael. “We have shown that the fractionation process works in the lab and now need to set up a pilot plant to demonstrate that the process works at a larger scale.”

“If all goes according to plan, we will be selling whole dried larvae while the fractionation technology is being piloted. This could take around eight months, whereafter we will sell a high protein meal, oil and if a market can be found chitin,” says Dr Woods

In both scenarios the margins make sense, and a profit will be made once they reach full production capacity (even though the maximum production capacity at Mariendahl is still relatively little in the greater plan).

They will also be selling black soldier fly eggs, or young larvae to customers who are looking to start their own colony or simply want to get involved in the grow out of the larvae for waste management. They also envisage to formulate and sell insect feeds to the greater insect mass rearing industry, including insects as biological control agents as well as consulting on all aspects of insect mass rearing.

The market

The team will adopt a business-to-business model and sell their product in bulk. Currently, they are negotiating with an American edible insect company, Chapul, who had expressed interest to purchase the protein powder they produce.

The team believes that the potential of insects has not yet been exploited and the opportunities out there are tremendous. “We will definitely be looking to find application for the oil in the cosmetics industry, as there are higher margins to be made compared to that of the animal feed industry. The saturated nature of the fat does not suit the animal feed industry well, and numerous other properties of the oil would be wasted in the animal feed sector, such as anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial properties,” says Dr Woods.

Moreover, last, but not least, for coffee drinkers, the Susento team has more good news: they would also like to produce biodegradable plastic from the chitin to produce biodegradable coffee pods as the waste management aspect of these pods is currently a primary environmental concern.