There are flies on Lowell Scarr – that is, in a manner of speaking. His business, which he started in 2018 on the outskirts of Makhanda in the Eastern Cape, is breeding black soldier flies and producing protein-rich livestock feed from their larvae. The company is called Nambu, a name derived from isinambuzane, the isiXhosa word for insect.
Some of the larvae are used as live or fresh feed, while others are dried and ground into a supplement. Selected larvae are matured to continue the breeding process. Nambu’s market is currently focused on providing feed and supplements for pigs, chickens, fish and pets.
Responding to a suggestion that the operation looks somewhat medieval, Lowell beams and says that’s exactly what he wanted as his whole process can be done manually and without any machinery. Many black soldier fly breeders around the world have setups that are industrial in scale.
Nambu’s vision is threefold. First, it wants to provide “affordable, sustainable and high-quality protein feed for livestock and pets”. Second, it wants to build a sustainable and resilient food system. And third, it aims to educate and enable even the smallest-scale farmers to benefit from this sustainable resource. Provided they have access to organic or food waste, or both, any farmer can set up their own operation.
The facility is currently scaling to process up to 100 tonnes of food and organic waste, which is obtained from local school and university cafeterias as well as restaurants and supermarkets. Nambu’s monthly average is 12 to 16 tonnes, but in September it managed to process 30 tonnes.
The waste is mixed into a substrate in which the larvae are hatched. The larvae are akin to supersonic waste processors: they efficiently turn food waste into protein, fat and calcium, all packaged inside their chubby, squirming bodies and ready for consumption when they are harvested at 17 days.
Black soldier flies are not the same as the common houseflies or their maggots. They do not carry pathogens or contaminate food. The adults do not eat and focus on finding a mate and laying their eggs close to a viable food source.
An adult female is said to lay anywhere between 200 and 600 or more eggs at a time. In contrast to maggots in garbage, the black soldier fly larvae’s voracious feeding habit reduces waste matter so quickly that it prevents any bad odours. They also consume any other fly and insect larvae that may be in the waste. In an all-encompassing process, the substrate in which they feed and mature is also used as a fine composting agent once the harvesting has been completed.
Scarr says black soldier flies are common and widespread, but they are shy creatures and not regarded as pests because their larvae are among the most efficient in converting biowaste into feed. They have also been used to control housefly infestations in chicken production for decades. The flies are thought to have originated in the Americas, but spread rapidly to all continents and are a popular choice in insect factories around the world.
Currently completing a PhD in economics through Rhodes University, Scarr has a self-confessed love for living things and his academic background is complemented by his desire to find sustainable solutions to the food shortages facing South Africa. “The focus of this work is on the factors that contribute to success in agri-business and other businesses that operate within a rural context,” he says.
After doing extensive research and attending conferences, Scarr settled on this unassuming “superfly”. The farming of these insects is efficient in reducing the need for water and arable land, and can also deal with humankind’s propensity for producing food waste.
Scarr has received financial support from the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, which invests in educating and developing “individuals with entrepreneurial potential within southern Africa”. But for him, it’s not just about selling an excellent product.
“To feed the future we need to work on self-sufficiency and resilience,” he says. “We can’t do this by hoarding our knowledge. I want to share what I have learnt with everyone so that they can start their own [black soldier fly] operations on their farms. We’re about teaching and training as much as we are about selling [the livestock feed].”
Nambu is poised to increase its role in satisfying the growing need for animal feed. Being from the Eastern Cape, Scarr is focusing on his home province and will expand from there.
The company hopes to have a plant up and running in East London by the end of 2021, followed by Gqeberha and then further afield. Each location will have its own demands and challenges, a main one being the sourcing of food and biowaste.
Whereas Makhanda is an almost perfect location because of all the educational, government and military institutions in the town, other locations might not be as “blessed” and other forms will have to be identified. In East London, for example, it will be focused around agricultural waste.
The black soldier fly’s larvae have potential uses beyond animal feed. Among them are a grease that can be used in the pharmaceutical field and even cooking oil that can replace vegetable oils, including the controversial palm kernel oil.
The larvae can also feed humans and apparently smell like potatoes when being cooked. This is according to Austrian designer Katharina Unger, who invented Farm 432’s “The Hive”, a table-top insect-breeding appliance for domestic use. She is quoted as saying that the larvae’s consistency “is a bit harder on the outside and like soft meat on the inside. The taste is nutty and a bit meaty.”
At a local expo, Nambu had a bowl of dried black soldier fly larvae on show when a delegate dipped his hand in and proceeded to chew a mouthful. He thought that they were great and called a few friends over for a sampling. Perhaps, in the future, there’ll be some fly in our soup.