What you need to know:
- The process of producing the protein-rich ingredient starts with the female black soldier fly laying eggs.
- Larsen started the venture in 2019 after 10 years of studying and working in the aquaculture sector.
Birds chirp incessantly from the numerous trees lining up the road in Karen, Nairobi.
The trees, alongside other vegetation like flowers, make the Karen environment serene. Our destination is Kristian Larsen’s family residence, where he keeps black soldier flies (BSF).
Seeds of Gold team finds him tending to the insects reared inside greenhouses. With him are his two workers.
Larsen is the founder of NutriEnto, a start-up through which he produces black soldier fly larvae for use as a protein ingredient in animal feeds.
He has divided his farm into two sections. There is the ‘love cages’ or breeding section where the flies produce eggs, and then the feeding area.
“We use 12 by 8m greenhouses but others use converted sheds. You then require the cages for production and containers for the larvae to be fed or fattened,” explains Larsen.
The process of producing the protein-rich ingredient starts with the female black soldier fly laying eggs.
“The eggs are collected and incubated for them to hatch into neonates. They then grow and become stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 and so on. Each stage is referred to as instar1 or instar 2. In short, the neonates grow into larvae and are fed substrate (food waste),” he adds.
The substrate is fermented avocado and potato waste, which he collects from around Nairobi.
“To ferment them, we put in a tightly sealed container for a week. Fermenting helps to get rid of odour.”
High protein content
Once the larvae are at the fifth developmental stage, they are harvested and dried. During sorting, 80 per cent of the larvae is harvested and ready for processing, while the 20 per cent goes back into the colony to turn into pupae and then transform into flies, which then produce more eggs.
“Sorting depends on the colour of the larvae. The white ones are harvested and taken for processing, while the black ones are taken back to the colony to begin a new cycle. The black colour is a signal that they are about to transition into flies, and once the female flies have laid eggs, they die and the cycle begins again.”
The next stage is processing the larvae into the final protein product, says Larsen, where they are placed on a dryer and heat at 65 degrees for an hour. The resultant product is a protein ingredient.
“Our production varies but it is between 500 kilos and a tonne-and-a half per month. Our customers are animal feed producers. We also sell directly to small-scale chicken and fish farmers,” he adds.
Dr Chrysantus Tanga, a research scientist at the Insects for Food, Feed and Other Uses (INSEFF) programme at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe), notes that BSF has a high protein content that ranges between 40 per cent to 60 per cent.
“It is 26 per cent cheaper than omena, which has a protein content of 40 - 44 per cent,” he adds.
He notes that the fact that most countries are now selling their soybeans, a major protein ingredient in animal feed production at the highest price, means reliance entirely on the ingredient is no longer sustainable.
“On the other hand, insects are the best alternative protein sources since they have short generation cycle of around 9-10 a year, compared to two to three cycles a year for animals and plants. Remember, flies produce better and can lay up to 500-900 eggs at any given time,” he adds.
In terms of safety, Dr Tanga says BSF are harmless to humans since adult flies are not a disease vector nor sting or carry venom.
“Processing is key considering that sometimes insects live in dirty environment, but at the same time they have a way of waving off bacteria. Drying helps to eliminate pathogens making them safer.”
Apart from the dried larvae, Larsen also sells the eggs to farmers setting up their farms. “In a week we can sell up to 150 grams of eggs. We have five customers from Karatina, Thika, Juja and Kenol,” he offers.
And that is not all. The bio-waste excreted by the larvae is a nutrient-rich fertiliser.
“We keep it outdoor in a large open container for a week so that enzymes can get time to work on it. Also, this prevents it from burning the top soil. Normally, it is mixed in a ratio of 1:2 to soil,” explains Larsen.
Other outputs from the farming besides protein, bio-fertiliser and eggs are larvae oil and chitin, which can be derived from defatted BSF exoskeleton. It can further be processed into a high-quality chitosan, with potential applications in agriculture and pest-control in potato farming.
“Using the biofertiliser enhances soil fertility. It has been tested and has been seen to yield more in crops like beans and collards green.”
Larsen says they currently give the fertiliser away to farmers, but some sell it for between Sh20 and Sh100 per kilo.
According to Larsen, what gives him an edge is the fact that his team has been trained at Icipe and Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
However, this doesn’t mean they don’t face shortcomings. The main challenge is getting funding, this being a new venture.
“Also, there’s an issue of volume production to fit what animal feed processors want, as well as sourcing the right waste for the substrate,” says the farmer, who has so far invested Sh2 million into the business.
But he insists that though rearing of insects for animal feed is a new development, they are encouraged by the demand for their product and the opportunity for growth in the sector.
He started the venture in 2019 after 10 years of studying and working in the aquaculture sector. It is here that he became aware of the negative environmental impact associated with feed inputs, primarily the use of wild stock fish, as well as low quality soy meal as the primary sources of protein.
Upon returning to Kenya in 2015 from Australia where he had gone to study agribusiness with a major in aquaculture, he found a similar problem as over 80 per cent of protein for animal feed was imported, while the rest came from threatened omena populations in Lake Victoria.
“We set up NutriEnto to offer an alternative and sustainable protein source to the market, by producing BSF that we sell at between Sh150 to Sh200. At first, I started with fish farming but then I couldn’t compete with the cheap imports from China. This became unsustainable.”
He got funding of $1,500 (Sh166,852) from Rockefeller Foundation and Kenya Climate Innovation Centre when he started.
Betty Kibaara, the Rockefeller Foundation director, food initiative, says developing the insect-based feed sub-sector is in line with the government’s Big 4 Agenda on agro-processing and food and nutrition security.
Kenya Bureau of Standards’ recent approval of protocols on good practices, processing, and integration of insect-based protein into animal feed has positioned Kenya as a leader in BSF production in Africa.
“Icipe has trained close to 2,000 farmers under a Rockefeller Foundation project and helped set up more than 20 small-scale insect-based enterprises as well as developed feedstock recipes for optimal BSF production and feed formulations,” says Kibaara.
NutriEnto employs four people to help in running their farm, and they have adopted an outgrower programme whereby they offer farmers eggs and buy from them the larvae when they mature. “We also process their larvae once harvested.”
In five years, the farmer says he would like to be producing 10-15 tonnes of the larvae a month in a more commercial area and have many more outgrowers to contribute.