In Southeast Asia, the demand for low-cost agritech solutions is growing.
A report released by PwC, Rabobank and Temasek found that agriculture may not be able to keep up with Asia's rapid urbanization.
At the same time, global warming and a global pandemic have increased food insecurity.
Singapore, a country that imports over 90 percent of its food supplies, is exposed to significant risks.
Protenga, a Singapore-based agritech company, is rising to meet demand. The startup aims to act as a cost-effective, sustainable solution for the global food production system.
It builds Smart Insect Farms that produce insect protein that is used as fodder or fertilizer for agriculture.
"It's like any other type of farming you can imagine – but with insects for cattle," said Leo Wein, CEO and founder of Protenga.
"Like everywhere else in the world, we have to think about the food that eats our food," he added in an interview with Vulcan Post.
Protengas new cash crop: insects
The startup was started in Germany as a summer pilot project in a friend's garden garage.
Leo never planned to run an insect-based agritech startup. The idea came, he says, through his co-founder, who is a biologist in training.
Leo, who was working as a data specialist in Singapore at the time, imported the idea to Southeast Asia. The leap from chasing digital bugs to real insects has been quite a leap.
At the time, Leo was leading product development and software engineering for Singapore-based companies. That includes working at companies like Hatch and The Engage.
Leo Wein / Photo credit: Leo Wein's LinkedIn profile
The agritech company cultivates Black Soldier Flies, the ideal insect protein, says Leo.
"Their life cycle is short, they grow vigorously, and they don't require much food or water. They don't transmit known diseases and are not pests on crops."
The flies can also be raised on food waste, which is both sustainable and inexpensive.
“Food waste is usually sold cheaply or has no value at all,” explains Leo. "Insects absorb otherwise lost nutrients as feed and fertilizer in insect biomass."
In contrast to animal feed such as corn or soy, Protenga's insects do not require large investments in land, food or water.
Insect protein also reduces overfishing. Fish eat other fish, Leo explains, and insects are a far more sustainable alternative to seafood.
Building high-tech insect biosphere
Where other insect companies build and expand a single mega-facility, Protenga follows a value chain model that is adapted for insect production.
Agritech uses Smart Insect Farms, which were built in a modular, decentralized system near waste biomass sources. A Smart Insect Farm is designed for a daily raw material intake of 20 to 60 tons.
Protenga Products / Photo credit: Protenga
Mechanized and fully automated operations are under development and are supported by software, breeding and processing services.
The idea of sustainable and inexpensive insect farms has caught on.
Protenga's first commercial agricultural property opened in 2019 and the startup closed its first seed funding in July 2020.
US $ 1.6 million (S $ 2.2 million) was raised by a UK agritech company, Roslin Technologies, and SEEDS Capital of Enterprise Singapore.
Roslin Technologies is affiliated with the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute, known for developing Dolly The Sheep, the world's first cloned mammal.
The deal includes the construction of a bespoke nuclear genetic facility near the headquarters in Edinburgh. The laboratory will use breeding technology to develop improved insect breeds.
Protenga also works with experts from the NIS on research into insect biology. The startup is setting up a research and development farm in nearby Johor to build a customer base, technology and prototypes.
Introduction of insect farms over the sea in 2021
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Protenga appreciates that insect farming is recognized and supported by local governments, says Leo.
Photo credit: Protenga / LinkedIn
"We can tackle more food waste, have a direct impact on the environment and create a more scalable and sustainable agricultural approach to Southeast Asia."
The agritech startup is ready to take over Southeast Asia and Smart Insect Farms will roll out across the region in 2021.
Could this be the future of agriculture?
Singapore's agriculture may be tiny, but Protenga's products are still important to Singapore's industrial and sustainability goals, Leo explains.
"Responsibility for sustainability includes the consumption of the food we eat – and the source of the feed we feed our food with."
“Agrifood is an enormous global opportunity and challenge. Insects offer a fascinating and largely untapped opportunity … We are excited and proud to be at the forefront of this movement. "
Agriculture has been looking for alternative options to unsustainable farming practices for decades.
Using insect protein as a sustainable feed would be a good alternative as it is inexpensive and sustainable. Flies can be raised on food waste and do not require large investments in land or water.
Selected image source: Sustainability times