Green movement: EnerGaia bets on spirulina

Green movement: EnerGaia bets on spirulina

The maker of the algae-based protein source wants to feed the world

Mr Shah (in blue shirt) meets with villagers in Bangladesh to grow spirulina.
Mr Shah (in blue shirt) meets with villagers in Bangladesh to grow spirulina.

One of Bangkok's most promising startups is ramping up production of a food you've probably never heard of.

EnerGaia, a nine-year-old company, was recently awarded US$3.65 million in Series A funding, which it will use to expand production of spirulina, a high-protein, mineral-rich algae used to boost nutritional value of food or taken in supplements.

While spirulina, a green powder with a savoury, chicken-broth-like taste, lacks the name recognition of other superfoods like kale and acai, its advocates are trying to build it into a staple food item and potential billion-dollar industry.

Thailand is a perfect place to produce spirulina, which grows best in temperatures between 30C and 35C.

EnerGaia is banking on spirulina proliferation driven by future resource scarcity. In the next 50 years, it's unlikely we can rely on the same sources of protein like meats and nuts, which require large amounts of water to produce, and will have to supplement our diets with more sustainable proteins. Spirulina takes a fraction of the water to produce as do other popular proteins, and EnerGaia is conducting in-house research to make the process more water-sustainable.

Spirulina takes about 150 litres of water to produce one kilogramme, compared with 3,400 litres for rice and 15,400 litres for beef.

"Our vision is to take spirulina from a niche supplemental commodity that's sold in a few thousand tonnes a year to a mainstream food commodity by 2050 to feed the world, sold in millions of tonnes a year," said Saumil Shah, the founder of EnerGaia. "To get from there to here, there's still a few major factors to address before we bring it to scale."

EnerGaia was established in 2009 by Mr Shah, an American-born engineer who used to work for General Electric. In 2006, GE sent him to Bangkok, where he became interested in starting a company to produce algae-based biofuels. He eventually pivoted from fuel to food after seeing that algae could be sold at a much higher price point as fish feed.

Mr Shah built a facility in Ayutthaya that was later destroyed by the floods of 2011, so he moved the operation to Bangkok and pivoted again to focus on food for humans -- again selling at a much higher price. The main issue was raising the profile of this relatively obscure algae.

"It's not like we're selling cigarettes here, there is so much third-party research on the health benefits," Mr Shah said. "Right now it's a matter of access. Spirulina needs to be offered in grocery stores, not just at small health food shops."

The company began production in the capital by making a deal with the Novotel Bangkok on Siam Square to grow spirulina on the roof and sell it in the building's cafe.

The company has since expanded to Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Vietnam, while working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote spirulina production in rural areas. EnerGaia also has a facility in Phuket and a research and production operation at the Asian Institute of Technology in Pathum Thani.

Last year EnerGaia produced three tonnes of spirulina, but it hopes to increase production to 20 tonnes this year with money from investors that include 500 TukTuks.

Not only does EnerGaia want to grow as a producer, it also offers consulting and logistical support for third parties to start growing spirulina. While growing the algae is light on labour and takes only a month, it does require a bit of scientific know-how and access to minerals to get production off the ground. EnerGaia provides equipment, training and on-site support to new farmers.

EnerGaia began a programme in late 2017 to give rural villagers in Bangladesh the chance to produce spirulina on their own to supplement their income. The scheme received a grant from the Gates Foundation last year.

Ten tanks produce about $600 a year in income, with each tank taking up about one square metre of space. "Microentrepreneurs" can receive financing and training from EnerGaia to begin their farm, eventually selling the spirulina back to EnerGaia, while keeping some to eat. The company also offers labs in the communities that supply some of the more expensive minerals to the producers and process the spirulina.

"The project creates a win-win," Mr Shah said. "It's a supply base for us, a nutritional benefit for the households, as well as a livelihood upgrade, as spirulina's a higher-value commodity."

Last September, EnerGaia began a similar project in Indonesia in partnership with the UN Environment Programme.

Mr Shah said he hopes spirulina will fill 2-3% of the world's protein diet by 2050, and he plans to increase his own production to 160 tonnes a year by 2020. But it remains to be seen whether this esoteric algae will remain a healthy fad or bloom into a commodity powerhouse.

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