Bugging Out


Text by Nicolas Heffernan


The answer to securing food for the impoverished and undernourished: grasshoppers, palm weevils, caterpillars, and water beetles.

Don’t worry if it takes you aback, it took the captain of the team who is bringing the idea forward time to get his head around it too. But about a year after embracing the idea, Mohammed Ashour and a team of four other McGill University MBA program participants won the prestigious Hult Prize, a year-long social-entrepreneurship competition involving thousands of students from around the world. The team also cashed in on the prize’s $1 million jackpot to help implement a plan to formalize the existing informal insect markets around the world and promote innovative insect farming practices in order to provide year-round access to nutritious insect foods.

Mohammed Ashour looking for chapulines in a field. Photo credit: Fondacion Ayu, taken in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Mohammed Ashour looking for chapulines in a field.
Photo credit: Fondacion Ayu, taken in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Even Bill Clinton admitted it’s a difficult idea to accept when he presented Ashour, Gabriel Motte, Jesse Pearlstein, Shobhita Soor and Zev Thompson, who started a company around their winning plan called Aspire Food Group, the award in September. The McGill team beat out 10,000 competitors including five teams from South Africa, Shanghai, San Francisco, Dubai and London in the finals in New York at the annual Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting. “This is really serious,” he said. “If I said to somebody 60 days ago I’m going to give this prize this year to someone who wants to process and sell edible insects – to empower rather than devour – they’d have laughed.”

When Ashour received the challenge of solving the global food crisis in August 2012, he immediately started putting together a team that could compete. “There was a deliberate and conscious effort to select a team that has a sort of diverse portfolio,” he says. Ashour reached out to Motte first, who he had befriended over the first few weeks of the program and became the group’s strategy and implementation specialist. Over time the duo recruited Pearlstein who had expertise in finance, Soor for her legal acumen and Thompson as a serial entrepreneur.

Zev Thompson in a slum. Photo credit: Gabe Mott, taken in Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya.
Zev Thompson in a slum. Photo credit: Gabe Mott, taken in Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya.

But finding a solution with the potential to win the prize proved elusive. “We knew… it would have to be a revolutionary concept,” says Ashour. The team went off in different directions, spoke with different people and tried to stimulate conversations to think of a unique answer. One of Ashour’s friends mentioned in passing, “‘By the way, in some parts of the world there are people who consume insects.’ At the time I remember being very dismissive and disgusted by his suggestion. Having said that, I couldn’t let go of the idea. It was definitely intriguing and I decided to go home and do so some research about it,” he says.

According to a recent report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 2.5 billion people eat insects seasonally worldwide. Insects are also much more environmentally friendly than traditional livestock, producing far less greenhouse gas emissions and requiring less land and water to farm. They are also much more economically viable than traditional livestock. For example, crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. “The minute we discussed it as a group everybody immediately jumped to their feet: This is it! This is the idea that’s going to create that kind of impact,” he says. “It really quickly emerged as a feasible, not just feasible, but a fairly executable and innovative idea and that’s how we developed it from that point onwards.”

Chapulines on a tortilla. Photo credit: Mohammed Ashour, taken in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Chapulines on a tortilla. Photo credit: Mohammed Ashour, taken in Oaxaca, Mexico.

But with insect consumption being around for millennia and insect farming for centuries, the challenge for the McGill team wasn’t trying to alter people’s palettes but correct market imbalances. “There are so many people around the world who actually consume insects on a regular basis and their problem is one of seasonality and affordability,” says Ashour. “They’re not getting enough of these insects in their diet because they’re only available for a short period of time and when the insects are available they’re very expensive. By essentially increasing the supply and stabilizing access to these insects we should see a massive change in people’s caloric intake and nutrition intake at the same time.”

The team took the idea of consuming insects and turned it into a viable business solution by trying to formalize a fragmented market. “To do that we had to come up with ways we could monetize this project but at the same time keep it a social enterprise – at the heart of which there is this concern and commitment to do good while doing well at the same time,” says Ashour.

In a lot of places where insects are consumed, farming doesn’t actually exist. The first part of Aspire’s plan is empowering a network of peri-urban and rural farmers to actually farm insects in large quantities, who would sell them to a local hub managed by Aspire. The insects would be boiled and dried to ensure they’re sanitary and of good quality before being sold directly to a distributor who would package and sell to end users.

Mohammed Ashour getting up close and personal with a chapuline. Photo credit: Zev Thompson, taken in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Mohammed Ashour getting up close and personal with a chapuline.
Photo credit: Zev Thompson, taken in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The group’s plan has been modified many times since starting because of new research, information gleaned on their travels and time spent in a Boston accelerator program. One of their early plans was to take only crickets, but during fact-finding trips to places like Ghana, Thailand and Kenya, they quickly found that wouldn’t work. “The reality is insect consumption patterns differ from region to region and just because it’s a great product doesn’t mean people are going to want to eat it,” says Ashour. “Even though someone in Ghana eats palm weevils and they actually love them and they think they’re delicious, if we tried to feed them crickets they’re going to think they’re gross.”

Luckily, a lot of insects are fairly robust and versatile in their farming potential. “You can essentially use a very similar farming apparatus to farm crickets as you would grasshoppers as you would caterpillars as you would palm weevils,” says Ashour. “It’s not that we would need to invent something new every single market we enter. It’s very likely we would only need to make slight modifications to our existing farming unit to adapt to local insects according to local geography.”

This was the idea that Aspire pitched at the final in New York. “You’re talking about nine months worth of material, research, travel, findings, partnerships, all sorts of stuff you’re trying to pack into a 10-minute tight pitch that really conveys the most potential meaning about everything you’ve been doing,” says Ashour. “I would say we spent at least the month leading up to the final presentation just working on that.”

Once the final date was near they rehearsed and tried to take the experience in. “The final two days were, that’s it we’ve studied for the exam there’s nothing else we can do. We’re not going to cram… just soak up the fact that we’re here in New York and part of this amazing opportunity irrespective of the outcome,” says Ashour.

When the team won it was an exhilarating experience akin to one of the world’s biggest sporting events. “We were all overcome with emotion and gratitude and humility and everything all at once and it was such an honour for us to have won in front of thousands of people around the world who were live streaming. From relatives, countries in the Middle East, to you’re talking about our entire MBA program sitting in the lounge with a massive screen TV jumping up and down the minute they heard the announcement,” says Ashour. “It really felt like this World Cup type of feel to it.”
Adding to the occasion was the man who presented the award. “It was also probably the most humbling experience ever to hear that President Clinton specifically took some time to review our work and commented on just how big of a scale we were operating at and the type of catalytic impact our team’s idea could have on the world,” Pearlstein says.

Photo credit: Gabe Mott, taken somewhere in Thailand.
Photo credit: Gabe Mott, taken somewhere in Thailand.

Aspire will be able to put the $1 million prize to use quickly. With roughly four million people, Neza-Chalco-Itza on the outskirts of Mexico City is the largest slum in the world. “It has the double burden of undernourishment and obesity,” says Ashour. “It really has an ideal resume so to speak for the type of solution we’re providing.” Thanks to partnerships struck on their travels, Aspire has a 10-tonne order of grasshoppers to fill for a Mexican distributor by next spring. “We already have farmers who are interested in beginning to farm grasshoppers,” says Ashour. “A lot of things are really lined up well in Mexico.”

But the team isn’t stopping with Mexico with an ambitious to plan to try and reach five countries and 21 million people in five years. The Hult Prize money will definitely help but because it’s released on a milestone basis and not as a lump sum it puts pressure on the team to hit their targets. “We obviously have a very ambitious and tight financial schedule,” says Ashour. “We have all these hubs that we need to set up, farming units that we need to complete the prototyping of and start deploying and selling. I mean, a million dollars sounds like a lot of money but if you’re trying to scale into five countries and reach 21 million people in five years, it’s really not a lot of money at all.”

The team is seeking as many partners as possible – not just financial – which are needed to scale the solution, but who also have resources and connections in the countries they’re operating in. “We’re hoping once we have a certain degree of traction in Mexico that we’d be able to attract additional funding in order to really scale this thing as fast as possible,” says Ashour.

Ashour happily admits the team wouldn’t be where it is right now if it wasn’t for McGill University. Without it they wouldn’t have been able to travel the globe to carry out the research that ended up informing and shaping the business plan. The McGill community, alumni and faculty invested directly into the team “with no holds barred, no strings attached, they just wanted to see us succeed,” says Ashour. From lawyers who helped set up Aspire’s incorporation, to the COO of a massive global marketing consulting firm who helped refine the team’s pitch to the professor who used his contacts to help Aspire set up in Mexico, people gave up their time to see this group succeed. “It was a hugely important resource that we had and quite frankly it would be difficult to say we would have been able to establish this level of success without the ongoing support of the McGill community,” says Ashour. He also singled out the Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology’s Canadian breakfast at the International Food Technologists show in Chicago in July that helped make contacts that were a part of the team’s success. “The fact that Anton [Angelich, a McGill alumnus and speaker at the event] gave us the opportunity to speak at the breakfast was really great exposure for us,” says Ashour. “That was a very important event and we’re very glad to have been a part of it.”

There is no reason why there can’t be more Canadian success stories like Aspire’s. “We’re constantly surrounded by brilliant minds and brilliant ideas just at McGill University; imagine all the institutions and all the places throughout our country,” says Ashour. “Look what happened when a whole bunch of alumni came and said, ‘Look, this is a great team, we believe in them, let’s give them some money and some resources and let’s see how far they’re going to take it.’ And look how far we took it!”

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