From the increasingly-popular OERei™ to Friendly Fish™ sustainable fish food and Bloosom™ soil improver, Protix are processing insects – cultivated on fruit and vegetable residues – into a wide variety of products. "And there are many more applications in the pipeline," says Tarique Arsiwalla, founder of one of the first 'insect factories' in the world and a member of the Taskforce Circular Economy in Food (TCEF). The Taskforce is one of four national platforms launched within the REFRESH project.
The Protix story begins in 2009, during a holiday in Mozambique. Arsiwalla's colleague Kees Aarts goes diving and is shocked at how few fish he sees, attributing this to overfishing. "Too many fish end up as animal feed. Why not make animal feed with insects instead of fish," he says to his diving friends.
Low carbon footprint
He found he couldn’t let go of the idea, and a few months later he founded Protix together with Arsiwalla. Their mission: to contribute to a sustainable food system by creating ingredients from processed insects. "Insects have a low carbon footprint, grow fast and multiply rapidly," explains Arsiwalla. "In addition, they can convert low-value materials, such as residual flows from the food industry, into high-quality nutrients."
Just ten years later and the two entrepreneurs are in their state-of-the-art 'insect factory' in Dongen, Brabant (NL). They cultivate insects on fruit and vegetable residues, from companies in the neighbourhood, in accordance with strict European food safety standards, such as GMP + and SecureFeed.
The insects are processed into a broad portfolio of products and concepts, finding applications in 18 countries (and growing) around the world. "We make high-quality, patented, raw materials from the Hermetia illucens larva (black soldier fly), including ProteinX, LipidX and PureeX", Arsiwalla illustrates. The raw materials can become, for example, feed for young piglets and hypoallergenic dog and cat food. The company also owns the trademarks Friendly Fish™ (farmed fish fed with insect proteins instead of fishmeal), OERei™ (eggs from chickens that eat live insects) and Bloosom™ (organic soil improver).
Arsiwalla is proud of the changes Protix has set in motion. "We have put insect products on the map with manufacturers and consumers, and worked hard to ensure that appropriate regulations came into effect," he says. "Ten years ago, in western countries, insects were still regarded as a bit ‘creepy’. Nowadays, insect-processing – as a manufacturer or retailer – positively distinguishes you with the consumer."
Up to now, applications are mostly in a context where insects are used as animal feed. "Chickens and fish also eat insects in the wild, so it is logical", according to the entrepreneur. "Especially when you consider that you are reducing food waste by cultivating insects on (vegetable) food waste!"
Animal friendly and sustainable
In the original press releases about OERei™, which Protix launched onto the Dutch market – together with taskforce member Albert Heijn, in 2016 – the emphasis was on the chickens being fed living insects. "Chickens that scavenge for their insects live longer and stay fitter. They are busy all day and do not get bored, which reduces aggressive behaviour. And thanks to protein-rich insects they do not need soy that is transported from the other side of the world," says Arsiwalla. "Animal-friendly and sustainable, a unique combination."
OERei™ is popular with consumers; Albert Heijn rapidly expanded the number of stores stocking OERei™ from 38 to 112. "We expect growth to continue for a while, and that similar concepts will follow for meat and fish."
Sharing knowledge and ideas
Collaboration is essential for success for innovators like Protix. "You must dare to share your knowledge and ideas (wisely) with suppliers and buyers", the entrepreneur emphasizes. "Otherwise you will miss-out on valuable feedback."
According to Arsiwalla, initiatives like the TCEF play key roles in making the chain more sustainable. "The task force brings together like-minded people and shows that change really is possible, and that it is contagious." Protix and Albert Heijn were brought together by the Taskforce.
Tell your story often, and well, Arsiwalla advises other entrepreneurs. "And only work with companies that share your desire to innovate," he emphasizes. If you have a good story, you need not worry too much about price. "Price is just one of the elements of the whole. What matters is that you clearly define the target group and clearly demonstrate the added value of your product.” Governments could also put more focus on this. "With tenders, the emphasis is still too often on cost price."
Protix will soon open a second production facility, in Bergen op Zoom, with a production capacity ten times greater than in Dongen. "This will significantly increase how we contribute to the goal of a circular food system," says Arsiwalla enthusiastically. The company is in discussion with some large organizations in the food industry. "Given the success of the Oerei™ concept for hens, applications for broiler chickens, turkeys, farmed fish and pigs are an obvious next step."
Cutting by half the amount of food wasted in the Netherlands is the goal of the Taskforce Circular Economy in Food and its members. The Taskforce motivates and supports companies to connect initiatives, accelerate innovation and achieve positive behavioural change among consumers. The initiative thus brings the circular economy ever closer.