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Sustain our Africa: From maggots to marketing

Business Maverick

Business Maverick

Sustain our Africa: From maggots to marketing

Thursday was day two of the Sustain our Africa summit, Africa’s first big pow-wow about sustainability. The programme saw speakers and delegates grapple with important issues ranging from food sources to investment in sustainable business. From a man farming maggots to another trying to reform advertising, there were some invigorating ideas on the menu. By REBECCA DAVIS

Jason Drew takes the piss out of the poor. Those are his own words. The British-born social entrepreneur harvests human waste. In Kenyan slums, where access to toilets is severely limited, Drew sells toilets to entrepreneurs in the community for $500 a pop. The entrepreneurs charge their neighbours 5 shillings a day to use the loo. Drew’s team collects the “piss and poo” every day, paying the entrepreneurs $3 per time. This, together with the toilet rental, amounts to a daily income of $8, far above the regional average. 

The faeces are then composted, and the urine is left to settle for two months. After the genetic material has been broken down by nitrates and phosphates, it’s sold to farmers as fertiliser. It’s particularly popular among coffee farmers, but is also catching on in the DRC to fertilise rice. And urine ain’t that cheap: Drew’s team has just sold 20,000 litres of the stuff at $2 per litre. Drew says everyone wins: it makes money for him, it makes money for the entrepreneurs, and it ameliorates the sanitation situation in the slums.

Drew is about to start taking the piss out of the rich, too. He has a scheme in mind involving toilets at the Waterfront, with urine to be sold on to Cape wine-farmers. So if you get an unusual aroma in your Chardonnay bouquet in years to come… 

This isn’t the only enterprise Drew has on the go. The man is full of the kind of brilliantly simple ideas that make you wish you’d thought of them first. Here’s another of his ongoing schemes: fly-farming. Drew is really into flies – in fact, he’s just published a book on the subject, titled The Story of the Fly and How it Could Save The World. Flies are critical in nature, he maintains, and he’s found a new use for them which could help take some of the burden off the world’s speedily-dwindling fish stocks.

The oceans are so overfished, Drew says, that a single bluefin tuna sold for $736,000 on auction in Japan in January of this year. That is, Drew points out, far more than the price that rhino horns fetch (around $65,000 a kilo, with the average horn weighing about 5,5 kg). “The market is telling you that tuna is rarer than rhino,” he said. But of course certain types of fish aren’t running out: there’s plenty of salmon and trout for all. That’s because they are farmed. But farmed fish need animal protein in their diet – and that comes mainly from fish in the sea.

Yep, ground-up wild fish are used to feed farm fish. It’s a pretty revolting cannibalistic concept. But as much as a third of all the fish taken from the sea goes towards this purpose, and it’s inefficient: it takes around three pounds of wild fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon. Fish meal prices are, naturally, rising rapidly as the number of fish in the sea dwindles.

So Drew got to thinking: what is it that every fisherman in the world uses to lure fish with? Worms, or maggots. And what makes maggots? Flies – maggots are fly larvae. Drew starting wondering if maybe flies could become the basis for fish-food instead of fish. So he started a company, AgriProtein, to give it a shot.

Today the business has “immense cages of flies” in Stellenbosch. After female flies lay eggs – up to 1,000 – they are hatched into larvae and given blood and guts from a nearby abattoir to feed off. In just a few days, they are plump and ready to be ground into meal for (much cheaper) fish food. Drew says they can barely keep pace with the demand from fish farms. “It’s a profitable business, helping save our seas,” he summed up.    

Drew’s success seemed to sum up the Holy Grail for the Sustain our Africa summit: a profitable business which simultaneously takes strain off resources and is environmentally sustainable. One might quibble that the poor of Kenya should not have to pay to relieve themselves in a dignified fashion. One might even say that there is something unsettling (almost transubstantiation-like) about the bodies of the poor being machines to produce profits for business. But this would likely be greeted as sentimental, or unhelpful. There’s a social problem, and it’s being fixed, and everyone’s winning.

Of course, this model presupposes that capitalism is the answer – and that notion has barely been up for debate at Sustain our Africa. It was acknowledged in one of Wednesday’s sessions that it was capitalism that led us to the current point of environmental crisis, but it was felt that capitalism was also the only engine powerful enough to drive us out of it. It would have been interesting to see this notion problematised a bit more. But the Summit is, after all, the brainchild of a former ad exec (Deon Robbertze) and a publisher (Brendon Bell-Roberts), rather than environmental activists, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the general atmosphere was capitalism-friendly. 

Thursday’s agenda was extremely business-focused, with discussions on ways to raise venture capital for social enterprises, ideas on how to make businesses sustainable, and advice on how to carry out “integrated reporting” for your business. The idea which has underpinned the global economy for decades – that endless growth is both possible and desirable – was critiqued a few times, but it was simultaneously accepted that people wanted to make money off green ideas as well as contributing towards planet-saving. This is realistic, and it’s a way more palatable discourse than the screechy tone of environmental alarmists, which makes many people switch off completely.

There were times during the Summit, however, when my thoughts strayed to a friend of mine who is an environmental activist. Let’s call him Tom. Tom spends his days working for a high-profile environmental advocacy organisation, which pursues its goals through the usual channels available to such groups: the occasional protest stunt, but also lobbying government, meeting with industry, attempting to set meaningful carbon targets, and so on. In private, however, over a few beers, Tom will admit that he thinks this is all akin to rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. Tom thinks we need a radical social re-organisation, where as many people as possible live off the grid entirely.

Tom’s more moderate friends, like me – people who are alarmed by climate change and try to behave in environmentally-friendly ways while still attempting to live cushy middle-class lives – laugh him off when he gets in this mood, because we know it’ll never happen without some kind of revolution. But there was part of me that wanted to hear more voices like Tom’s at the Summit, because there was an atmosphere of comfortable corporatism that hung over the event which seemed to clash with its purported function.      

Thomas Kolster’s address on “Goodvertising” was a case in point. Goodvertising is the title of a book published by Kolster last year, in which he lays out his theory that advertising can “create value for both brands and the bottom line and do good for people and the planet at the same time”. Kolster’s belief that sustainability is not seen as terribly sexy at the moment is absolutely incontrovertible. “Sustainability is complicated, there are a lot of numbers and figures; it’s not a compelling story,” he said. But he maintains that you can sex it up. At one point in his presentation, he showed a slide of an old Marlboro ad, and suggested that the sustainability lobby could learn something from the tobacco industry’s advertising success.

But part of the reason that sustainability isn’t sexy is because it is a complex issue, and to get the likes of Ivo Vegter on your side, you’d better damn well hope you have a lever-arch file of figures up your sleeve. The dangers of oversimplifying complicated problems to make them more digestible were witnessed by the case of the Kony 2012 campaign, which was torn to shreds for factual inaccuracies and subsequently lost much credibility. 

Beyond that, though, it may be realistic to think that the public will give more of a damn about recycling if they watch football heroes wearing Nike shirts made out of recycled plastic bottles – an example cited by Kolster – but isn’t there something a little weird about framing global corporations as environmental saviours when they’re the ones that got us in this mess to start with? Towards the end of his presentation, Kolster said: “It’s more important to do greenwashing than nothing.” Unless Kolster and I are defining greenwashing differently, this seems an extraordinarily contentious notion. 

Greenwashing is generally used to describe a practice whereby money is spend on advertising to create the idea that a company is green without similar funds being ploughed into actual environmental best practice. I think Kolster probably meant something along the lines of: even token gestures are better than nothing – after all, he approvingly showed the audience a picture of a Chanel fashion show where wind turbines had been erected on the catwalk. But surely we can’t afford to allow major brands to get away with only the appearance of sustainability, in the hope that some of this “inspires” the public? The power of individuals to influence the environment is a fraction of that of corporations.

Speaking of corporations, one of the strangest moments of the Summit came when David Brittain, the “technical stewardship director” of Coca Cola, took to the lectern to give a dull treatise about what Coca Cola does to clean up water these days. His talk came on the back of a morning devoted to discussing the importance of ethical sourcing of food and drink, and also followed science writer Leonie Joubert’s strong critique of the fast food industry on Wednesday. (Joubert suggested, in fact, that even fruit juice should be avoided for being highly calorific.) As such, to grant Coca Cola a speaking slot seemed at best incoherent, and at worst highly questionable.

This is, after all, a corporation with a severely contested environmental record, accused of contributing towards severe water shortages in countries like India as well as contaminating groundwater and soil. Coca Cola’s manager of environmental affairs, Jeff Seabright, said in 2005: “Water is to Coca Cola as clean energy is to BP” – an acknowledgement that in the eyes of the public, they were very much baddies. Since then, they have taken steps to clean up their act, and their approach to water is now much better than it once was. But that doesn’t make them controversy-free on the environmental front.    

Coca Cola has been particularly intransigent on the recycling front, repeatedly refusing to sign up to ‘bottle bills’, legislation in the US which would create a deposit system for bottles. US states which have enacted the bill report bottle recycling rates of up to 80%, and a reduction in beverage container litter of up to 83%. But Coca Cola (and Pepsi) say it’s too expensive, because they would be responsible for setting up the deposit systems and arranging for the collection and processing of the empty bottles.

As recently as July this year, Coca Cola entered a spat with SodaStream in South Africa after the latter set up a giant cage at OR Tambo filled with the number of used bottles and cans that an average family goes through in three years. The aim of the stunt was to raise awareness of the damage to the environment caused by packaged soft drinks. Coca Cola responded by demanding that SodaStream remove their bottles from the Cage immediately, as they were the property of Coca Cola. SodaStream responded by saying: “If they claim to have rights to their garbage, then they should truly own their garbage, and clean it up.”

The point is, “Coca Cola” is hardly synonymous with “good” on the environment front. Summit organisers may argue that it is instructive to see how big corporations attempt to right environmental wrongs, but Brittain’s talk was in no way a mea culpa, and given that few of the delegates present were likely to own multinational multi-billion dollar soft drink corporations, the details of how Coca Cola was going about not ruining rivers any more was unlikely to be terribly practically relevant. It smacked of a PR opportunity for Coca Cola more than anything else, to demonstrate their alignment with the sustainability movement. 

Another slightly strange inclusion on the speaker’s agenda was a man called Sean Cleary, who was introduced with a glowing CV, including his status as a fellow of the World Economic Forum. What went unmentioned was that Cleary was an Apartheid-era diplomat who also worked for military intelligence. Cleary was described by the Independent in 1994 as “erudite but shadowy”, owing to his alleged involvement with a firm called Strategy Network International – which was “specifically created to lobby against economic sanctions” during Apartheid. The firm’s job was to woo UK politicians to South Africa to see for themselves that things weren’t so bad. (A young David Cameron was one of the Tories who accepted this perk in 1989.)  

Cleary went on to serve as non-executive chairman of Erinys International, a controversial private security firm. Fortunately Cleary stepped down in 2003, because in 2004 the firm was found to be using former Koevoet members to guard oilfields in Iraq. Cleary is now listed as the chairman of a company called “Strategic Concepts (Pty) Ltd”, which the Independent claimed was investigated by police in 1996 for potential involvement in the arming of Zairean rebels

Of course, you may well argue that all of this has no material bearing on his ability to speak compellingly about the need for sustainability. But if I’m going to be addressed on the topic of “recovering integrity” (the title of his talk), I’d rather it be by someone who doesn’t make for quite such colourful Googling. DM

Read more:

  • How fly farming may help more fish stay in the sea, on NPR

Photo: Flies are seen at Jakarta’s main garbage dump at Bantar Gebang district, March 24, 2009. Fly farming is being seen as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly mass fish food. (REUTERS)


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