Yappy medium: Happy Hounds using vegetable and insect protein to make ‘gentle’ food
A Cape Town company is trying to do things ‘gently’, aiming to decrease its environmental footprint and improve the quality of the food that South Africa’s 10 million dogs eat every day. As part of its plan, it uses vegetables from micro-farmers and insect protein.
One part of this journey begins during the Covid-19 lockdown in a home kitchen in Cape Town, where three dogs live – Jessie, Squirrel and Bindi.
Emma Kaye, founder and CEO of Happy Hounds, had long been thinking about her own impact on the planet. “I personally like to live gently in my little world – I have an eco-pool, I’ve got my own veggies, a beehive…”
But it was during the Covid-19 lockdown, as she fed her dogs yet another bowl of dry, brown, burnt-looking pellets, that she began to think about what their food was doing to the planet and to their health. “I can’t believe I wasn’t conscious about what they were eating and so I started to research it and was quite shocked about what goes into the making of pellets.”
Over the sound of a busy kitchen that we can see from our table in the Happy Hounds office in Woodstock, Kaye tells us about some of the things she discovered. “Obviously there is a huge range in pellets, but the majority of pet food goes through an extrusion process to extract moisture, the ingredients are cooked at very high temperatures to get rid of any pathogens, quality ingredients aren’t always used, and there is monoculture used for farming the ingredients.” To make up for the nutrients lost during this process, dog pellet manufacturers add a range of supplements back into the mix and have to add in palatants to make the pellets appealing for the dogs to eat.
Research is starting to show that this process can have harmful effects on the dogs who eat dry pellets. Research from the Clean Label Project in 2017 found heavy metals including arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium and nickel in several popular brands of pet food, many of which are linked to cancer. Other research linked dog food pellets to problems of gut health, allergies and skin conditions.
On top of that, the pet food industry has a huge carbon footprint, releasing 106 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere each year and using large amounts of land to grow ingredients. A University of Edinburgh study found that a country emitting the same amount of greenhouse gases as the food industry in question would be the world’s sixth-highest emitter.
Concern is etched on Kaye’s face as she tells us this. “It made me want to make my own dog food. I wanted to make sure I used quality ingredients, that I was giving my dogs good, wholesome food, and at the same time that I was trying to be as ethical as I could in terms of the ingredients and making sure that we were supporting an ecosystem of suppliers.”
Kaye began testing recipes for her own dogs and was soon feeding her friends’ dogs, and word started to spread. Only six months into producing Happy Hounds, Kaye and her growing team were making a ton of food a month out of her home kitchen and delivering it to their customers. She needed her home back, and in April 2021 they moved into the perfect premises in Woodstock, where they could have a small retail outlet and a commercial kitchen.
“Traceability and transparency are important to us,” Kaye says, gesturing to the open kitchen where visitors to their store, and anyone passing the window, can see how the food is prepared and the ingredients they’re using.
Produce at Happy Hounds is sourced hyper-locally and “we only use whole ingredients. The use of organic and ethical meat is important to us, to not only minimise our environmental impact but also to ensure that our dogs are not consuming vegetables and meat that are grown using chemicals, hormones or antibiotics. It’s also important that our suppliers support inclusive community value chains.”
Vegetables are sourced from organic female micro-farmers. Happy Hounds uses traceable, line-caught and green stock fish caught by traditional fishers, supporting 22 to 30 crew members who are breadwinners for their families. They get their meat and chicken from Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants. And in an exciting new development, they have begun a range of insect protein dog food with ingredients sourced from Maltento.
Happy Hounds is also working to ensure that its products are kind to the environment at the end of their lifecycle, ensuring that its organic food waste (such as vegetable peels) are “sent to a local composting service that in turn provides compost to farmers in Philippi, the area where our organic vegetable farmers farm”. In addition, the team has put huge effort into ensuring that the packaging they use is best for their product and the environment, trialling a range of options, and recently launching a tamper-proof, 100%-recyclable polypropylene tub for retail and home use. It’s a sustainability journey they are committed to.
For Kaye, it wasn’t enough to just put good ingredients back into the food; it needed to be good for the dogs, too. She wanted to make sure that the food they were producing was complete and balanced, so she went in search of a pet nutritionist to help them make the best product possible. They’ve applied for certification with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, but this process can take many months to finalise.
She takes off her round tortoiseshell glasses to talk to us, green eyes bright with excitement, but puts them back on to show us the detailed spreadsheets and graphs on her screen, detailing the nutritional breakdown of each product. “Each product takes months to formulate,” she says, and they’ve considered the needs of dogs from puppy to senior to make sure it’s just right. “Our customers keep coming back telling us how their dogs love the food and how it has positively impacted their health.”
A testimonial painted on one of the office walls is evidence of this. “Layla loves Happy Hounds. Every time her weekly delivery of HH arrives she dances with uncontainable delight in anticipation. She never leaves a morsel behind, always polishing her bowl clean. And her coat and eyes are shining.”
Kaye shows us the breakdown for their new insect protein range – Happy Hounds will be the first fresh pet food to use this product. “The benefits of insect protein for dogs are off the charts, more so than any other protein. It’s not just insects’ amazing ability to consume waste, but also the health benefits.”
The smell of veggies and meat sautéing begins to drift over us. “Let’s go and have a look,” she suggests.
In the kitchen we watch as the Happy Hounds cooking team loads the blanched insect protein through a mincer, then adds herbs already sautéing in the pan. Finely diced vegetables are waiting on a counter nearby to be added to the mix, herbs in a bowl, and frozen blueberries stacked high in the freezer. Ashley Tembure, head chef, smiles at our excitement as he stirs and we all pore over the mix. It smells rich and savoury, and it’s easy to imagine why the dogs would be keen on lapping it up.
So, what makes insects such a special source of protein? I ask. “Let’s let Maltento tell you about their product.”
Ideas that fly
This story also begins at home, this time in Johannesburg in 2018.
Dean Smorenburg, CEO of Maltento, had always hated wasting food. “I’ve always questioned why we call it ‘waste’ when, when it’s on your plate, it’s absolutely perfect, and as soon as it’s scraped into a bin it’s now waste. It was always something that bothered me.”
He wanted to do something to fix the food chain. So, Smorenburg “found a guy who was selling larvae online and literally got them from Durban – they were wild flies – and started farming larvae in my spare bathroom. I had a fly cage in the bathroom and larvae on the balcony, and when I went away on weeklong training with my company, my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, would have to look after the many ‘kids’.” His at-home attempts convinced him this was something he wanted to pursue.
From these humble bathroom beginnings, Smorenburg’s consultancy work led him deeper into the insect-based biotechnology sector, and to launching Maltento in 2018. “The idea was to use clean bioproducts, and consistent bioproducts, that are completely traceable to produce high-quality larvae on the other side.”
When we’re speaking about larvae, we’re speaking about flies, and the choice of flies they’re using matters immensely. Black soldier flies are what Maltento calls “the unsung superheroes”.
Black soldier flies are slender creatures, elegant and black with a hint of a sheen, and look more like a cross between a wasp and a butterfly than your stereotypical fly. These tropical insects are dispersed over much of the world and are essential decomposers in nature. They are a non-pest species of fly, with zero risk to humans.
Farming these flies is also a much more environmentally friendly alternative to the way that feed for animals is grown ordinarily. According to Maltento’s website, kilogram for kilogram, insect-based protein uses 95 times less land, 7.7 times less carbon dioxide and 26 times less water than other protein sources. “We try hard to mimic what nature has always done and this has a significantly lower impact in terms of carbon footprint” says Dominic Malan, chief commercial officer at Maltento.
In the larvae stage, black soldier flies have an incredible ability to consume a huge amount of food and convert it into high-quality protein, while also being rich in other nutrients, vitamins, fats and minerals – an ideal food for animals. Maltento’s fly larvae are grown on spent grain sourced from Devil’s Peak brewery, maize, molasses and vegetable pulp. They know exactly what goes into their larvae, so they can trust and predict exactly what comes out.
Once the larvae are at the ideal size, they are separated from the remaining food (called frass) and are then either dried out and used as an ingredient in many forms of animal feed or used as live larvae that are then cooked by the feed producer. The frass is also reused as an organic fertiliser in agriculture. “There is almost no waste,” says Malan.
Last year, as she was developing their product line, Kaye decided to reach out to Maltento. The two companies’ values were well aligned, with both putting great emphasis on traceability. “I just called them and said this is what I was trying to do, and their door was open from the beginning,” says Kaye. “Our companies began pioneering the space together collaboratively.” Their teams worked with a pet nutritionist and trialled a range of recipes to get a blend that worked for dogs and for customers, with feedback shared after each new attempt. Taste, texture and consistency were key, and the iteration continues.
Around the boardroom table in Maltento’s offices in the old Lion Match Factory in Epping, Malan highlights a few of the health benefits that have already been shown for the animals. These include that the food is hypoallergenic, because “the insect protein has natural antimicrobial properties that remove harmful bacteria from the animal’s gut. The nutrition is also more bioavailable for the animal eating it.” The larvae are also high in medium-chain triglycerides, which stimulate animals’ brain function and have been shown to have anti-anxiety effects.
In addition, as Happy Hounds customers testify, they’re delicious to pets. In fact, Maltento is doing more research into this, including creating flavour wheels that can help to show what dogs, and potentially other animals, prefer. “We’re trying to channel our inner dogs these days,” says Smorenburg.
It’s one thing to imagine a finished dog food product and quite another to imagine what it means to grow hundreds of thousands of fly larvae. When many of us think of fly farming, we’re imagining the flies that buzz around our heads on a hot summer day, or shiny creatures wiggling little feet around their mouths on our lunch plate. Perhaps you imagine a factory of heaving, buzzing flies in a smelly environment. This is the absolute polar opposite to the environment at Maltento.
We enter their warehouse, which has high ceilings and clean floors, and which smells pleasantly malty and toasty – almost like burnt coconut biscuits. It’s quiet inside, as various Maltento team members get on with their work.
We are directed to an area where staff are adding fly larvae to the spent grain in tubs – a quivering pile of rice-sized larvae for each large tub of grain. “On day one we add one gram of larvae to some grain. These larvae we’re looking at here are already three days old,” explains Malan.
Each of these tubs of tiny larvae will be moved to a grow chamber, heated to a tropical temperature, where they’ll happily munch away for seven days. In that time these tiny piles will digest that grain, growing from that single gram of larvae on day one to five and a half kilograms of larvae on day seven. Then they’re separated from the frass and continue their journey into feedstock. The technology is continuously evolving and improving, and new products are being developed all the time.
Upstairs at the warehouse we’re shown the room where the flies themselves are breeding, laying their eggs into sponges. Despite the room being filled with thousands of flies, it is almost silent, illuminated only by bluish fluorescent light. The flies themselves are extremely docile; you can hold one on the edge of your finger. It’s peaceful inside. Just nature doing its work.
Outside I chat to Kaye some more about Happy Hounds’ plans for the future. Soon they’ll be working with Maltento to try to develop an insect range of cat food and will expand the company into other areas of South Africa. A fly rests gently on my coat sleeve, and I place it back inside the breeding room. “Isn’t it all amazing?” Kaye remarks. It’s impossible not to agree with her. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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