Finalist team from McGill University works to validate demand for micro-livestock food sources in urban slums at Hult Prize accelerator in Boston.
By Guy Viner
‘Entomophagists’ are people who consume insects as food, and understanding their demand and behaviors is of pivotal importance for a team from Montreal and their young social enterprise (See our first article on the Hult Prize for more information on the McGill teams idea). Laboring to validate assumptions at the start of their accelerator experience in Boston, the team is seeking to sharpen their knowledge around how insects are consumed at the bottom of the pyramid in an effort to formalize the market in areas where the behavior already occurs.
Will there be demand?
According to teammate Zev Thompson, the absolute, number-one thing that would verify the team’s idea is information consistent with the belief that large demand for insect food products exists in slums. “The supply side can be cultivated”, says Zev. A large market for insects as feed for pets exists in North America and Europe, but information surrounding their consumption by people in lower-income countries is largely fragmented and speculative.
To account for the fractious availability of information, the group has sent field teams to Ghana and Kenya and is pursuing pilots to test their assumptions. Their findings so far: yes, there are people that eat insects and see it as normal, and yes, information on this behavior is limited and decentralized at all levels in these countries. Reflecting on the importance of running pilots, the team commented, “It is simply not possible to email people and get the information you need.”
Building the business
As the McGill team aggregates practical research on market behavior and establishes early partnerships with other actors in the space, they’re keeping a leg up on sharpening their business plan. Eying growth, the team believes that the market will expand and formalize around their business when they provide a practical solution to growing and eating insects. When this happens, Zev believes, consumers will increasingly emulate those that eat insects for food.
When asked what role they will play in the value chain, the team commented that they are still flushing out their business plan. They noted, however, that it would not be unlikely for them to assume a processing role. That could involve providing value by packaging crickets, fortifying flour with their protein, and perhaps converting derivatives to a point where they can be used for biomedical purposes or fertilizer. By going down this route, the team can leverage the expertise of mentor Larry Slotnick, a co-founder of Taza Chocolate with a wide breadth of food processing experience. Since cocoa processing can be similar to cricket processing, he is an asset to the supply side of their business.
About being a social enterprise
As the team continues to get extensive media coverage because of the novelty of their solution to food insecurity, they are looking to shift the conversation away from crickets per se, and towards their motives as social entrepreneurs. Commenting on behalf of the team, Thompson notes, “Our generation is not as motivated by money – chasing after salary is not as interesting for a lot of us.” The team is more interested in exploring interesting and impactful projects, and breaking the groupthink in business where people only pursue obvious ideas. Touching upon why the group is pursuing a solution at the bottom of the pyramid, Zev says, “The human race could use a bit more of people helping each other across levels of wealth.”
The team also points to the sustainability aspect of their business as an additional bonus. Insects have a good mix of nutrients and protein, but are far less resource dependent and land intensive to raise than traditional livestock. The growing phase requires little and is simple for illiterate or uneducated users to execute, and the end protein generated is similar to that of prawns.
Although the stakes of the prize are high, the team is looking to share knowledge and collaborate as they move forward in the accelerator. They maintain a blog to spread insights to other practitioners and academics in the field, and want to play an active role in keeping knowledge and research on entomophagy ongoing. “Lots of groups in business and social enterprise have shared ideas, and we will be in that van”, says the team.
Regarding the other teams in the accelerator, Zev Thompson comments that, “there is probably a lot of talent in this building.” As the McGill finalists make their way to the second week of the accelerator, they will be looking for ways to leverage the knowledge, learning, and dynamism of other teams to bring their business to a point where they can secure funding and scale.
This article is part of a media collaboration between Grasp Magazine and Hult Prize. Grasp Magazine will cover the progress of finalist teams from participation in the Hult Accelerator to implementation of initiatives after the prize is awarded in September. You can find all the articles under our Hult Prize section and follow Grasp Magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to get the latest updates.