Founder Spotlight: Sidiki Sow (ProtERA)

Editors Note:  Happy New Year everyone! To kick off 2017, The Dobson Chronicles’ Mo Akif sat down with Sidiki Sow, Founder of ProtERA to learn about his entrepreneurship journey so far. Sidiki competed in the McGill Dobson Cup 2016, won first prize in the HEC Social Business Creation competition launched by HEC Montréal and the Grameen Creative Lab, and recently came back from Geneva, Switzerland where the ProtERA team emerged as one of five winners of Accelerate2030, a global Impact Hub program created by Impact Hub Geneva in partnership with the United Nation Development Program.


Hey Sidiki, care to tell us a little bit about yourself before we dive into the fun stuff?

I was born and raised in Mali, went to a French high school, did a French Baccalaureate, then studied abroad a little – Language studies in Toronto and Spain. I am an agro-environmental economist by training from the McGill University Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.

Right now, I’m working on a certification to become a professional agronomist by entering the Ordre des Agronomes du Quebec (OAQ) as well as growing my startup ProtERA Farms. At ProtERA, we farm insects for animal feed for the West African market. We aim to provide sustainable insect protein for poultry and fish diet as a substitute to resource intensive crops and fish powder that are currently being used. I also went through the McGill Dobson Cup 2016 and recently won the first prize at HEC Social Business Creation which is an international competition launched by HEC Montréal and the Grameen Creative lab.

What exactly is the problem ProtERA is solving?

By 2050, there will be 2.4 billion people in Africa. That is more than twice the current population. Food and feed demand are expected to double within an agricultural system that is overutilizing land and water resources and contributing to global warming. It is urgent to find alternative sources of feed and food that can meet a growing demand while preserving the environment. While the current protein feed production industry is tremendously resource intensive, insects are very nutritious and resource efficient.

Food and Agriculture Organization experts at the United Nations are positive that insects are one of the most promising source sources of protein in the world for both food and feed security. In fact, they published Edible Insects – Future prospects for food and feed security (2013) which was a huge success: it was downloaded more than 7 Million times.

What’s wrong with using something like corn meal for chickens – what does ProtERA really bring to the table?

First of all, 30% of the global grain supply and 25% of the ocean’s fish caught and are used to produce animal feed today. Grain demand comes from many places, food industry, animal feed and even ethanol fuel is derived from crops like corn. Such a high demand for crops made its price increase over the past ten years. Insects therefore provides a more environmentally friendly solution and may become more affordable as the industry grows.

There are currently some laws in most parts of the western world prohibiting insect meal from being used for animal feed because it is considered “animal protein” but companies like Enterra in British Columbia have played a crucial role in the recent approval of the use of insect powder to feed poultry broilers by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

Legislation is more flexible in Africa. Every ton of ProtERA’s Black Soldier Fly Larvae (BSFL) meal used in place of fish meal saves one ton of ocean fish. As a substitute to soybean meal, it reduces land, water, pesticide, and fertilizer use as well as GHG emissions. The flies recycle food waste by feeding on it, the leftovers of which ProtERA sells as organic fertilizer. They also produce fat content that can be extracted as an oil with the same properties as biodiesel.

McGill startup, ProtERA, farms insects for animal feed for the West African market.

What do you say to people who think that eating insects is gross?

First of all, our company is focusing on animal feed so it’s not marketed for human consumption – it’s for poultry and fish feed. I will however mention that eating insects is something humans have been doing since the dawn of time. There are 2 billion people who regularly eat insects in the world, it’s more than 80% of countries. Mainly in Asian African, and Southern American countries, people eat insects for their good taste and their great nutrition.

For example, in the summer months in the Democratic Republic of Congo, meat does not sell. They love caterpillars, in fact 70% of the population eat them during that season. That makes year round farming an opportunity that ProtERA is currently exploring in West Africa. Now for the western countries where insect consumption is very marginally practiced, I’d say food habits change all the time. We can point to the example of sushi, where it took 40 years to become mainstream while kale only took 4 years.

Currently, demand for insect powder is higher than supply. Many startups are making snack foods like cricket protein bars (Exo, Chapul), cookies (Bitty Foods), chips (Six Foods) or even insect tofu (C-fu Foods). They source their insect powder from some of the pioneers in insect farming like Aspire Food Group – a company created at McGill through the prestigious Hult Prize, and currently based in Austin, Texas. In the same city, Little Herds, is a nonprofit founded to educate the public on the nutritional and environmental benefits of edible insects.

Another advantage of insect BSFL as poultry feed, is better health, faster growth and development, and higher egg yield. Insects are much more nutrient-dense than grains: they are rich in protein, iron, calcium, Omega 3, and contains essential amino acids! If you’re familiar with the current farming industry, the animals are rarely fed what they have adapted to thrive on: cows naturally graze and chickens look for ground larvae. ProtERA can therefore contribute to providing a better and more natural diet to animals.

So you farm Black Soldier Flies…but what do you feed it?

I’m glad you asked: nothing. Black Soldier Flies don’t eat. Neither do they bite, or transmit any diseases. The eggs grow on organic matter like food waste and animal manure. 0.15 g of these eggs are able to clean 13kg of organic substrate from all pathogenic bacteria. Each female is also able to produce up to 1000 eggs. ProTERA takes advantage of this process by collecting fruit and vegetable waste, mainly from agro industrials and market places, to feed the insects with it.

Again, Black Soldier Flies don’t need to eat. I think it’s a strong symbol in opposition to much of what is wrong with the world today: consumerism. The rampant consumerism in the west is directly linked to environmental degradation at a highly accelerated, unsustainable pace. It would be amazing to see African economic development based on sustainable industries like insect farming and sustainable energy, while avoiding the mistakes made by the west.

It sounds like an environmental superhero!

Nature is amazing, it always has been. There are other “superheroes” as you call it, including nitrogen-fixing trees that can substitute for chemical nitrogen in agriculture as well as various fungi that act as environmental cleaners. Modern technologies are inspired by some of the designs we see in nature and I think the future will be very interesting, where man-made technology may eventually work in perfect harmony to complement nature in a way that will make the world better than it has ever been. Merging sustainable technology with these natural “superheroes” can ultimately yield results greater than the sum of its parts.

The ProtERA team in Geneva, Switzerland where the ProtERA team emerged as one of five winners of Accelerate2030, a global Impact Hub program created by Impact Hub Geneva in partnership with the United Nation Development Program.

You just got back from Switzerland, how did that go?

That’s right, I’m glad to be able to say that the ProtERA team was one of 5 winners of Accelerate2030, a global Impact Hub program created by Impact Hub Geneva in partnership with the United Nation Development Program. The program’s mission is to maximize the potential of impact-driven entrepreneurs working towards more sustainable development on an international level.

This allowed me to fly out to Geneva to participate in a tailored program of clinics designed to help us scale-up and network with impact investors and international institutions members (UNDP, WTO, etc). I also got to pitch at the invite-only UNDP Social Good Summit Geneva 2016. We were also connected with the Boston Consulting Group, Dalberg Global Development and Sidley Austin LLP for free consulting over the next few months. I’m pleased to say that I came out of Switzerland with 3 potential investors and a vastly broadened network.

Speaking of networking, do you have any pointers on how to build relationships with people that can help your business grow?

Reach out to mentors. I was blessed to know founding members at Aspire Food Group, who are an unlimited source of inspiration, incredible support in so many aspects of the development. Also, institutions like Impact Hub and HEC SBC were crucial to ProtERA’s growth. The McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship is also another great resource to build connections: I went through the McGill Dobson Cup 2016 where our team placed as Semi-Finalists.

Sidiki Sow, Founder of ProtERA with Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Muhammad Yunus at the Social Business Forum Canada 2016 in Ottawa

How did the McGill Dobson Cup help your team grow ProtERA?

I think it’s quite incredible how much you can accomplish when surrounded by motivated people that are there to help. I think that the two biggest factors are the mentoring and the stakes. The mentors provide a second, more experienced perspective and can easily point out things you haven’t considered like what the big picture is or how to figure out the demand for your product. During my time there, I had surveyed over 1300 people on campus through handing out surveys and giving speeches in front of large lecture rooms!

You’ve been to a variety of schools all over the world and have also learned a lot of things on your own time… do you have any tips on getting the most out of one’s education?

North American education is highly based on PowerPoint material models and multiple choice quizzes for which you don’t necessarily need to show up to class. Lots of student memorize the required material the day before the exam and forget everything afterwards. Many students graduate without even understanding the values behind their discipline. I will point out something: most of the learning that I’ve done that has gotten me to where I am today happened OUTSIDE of classes!

University is great and McGill is a highly prestigious institution, but the classroom is only one part of higher education. Use all the campus resources at your disposal: go to conferences, join clubs, create connections with people, and try new projects. McGill has so much more to offer than lecture halls, it’s really the greatness of its students that makes it a great school!

Thanks for your time and your inspiring words Sidiki. Until next time!

Interested in launching your startup? Applications for the McGill Dobson Cup 2017 are being accepted December 18, 2016 to January 18, 2017. Apply to compete today!  

Mo Akif

Mo Akif

The Editor-in-Chief of the McGill Dobson Chronicles. Never having started a lemonade stand as a child and tired of reading blog posts about entrepreneurship without actually doing anything, he was on the verge of giving up and joining a pyramid scheme. Luckily the McGill Dobson Centre decided to adopt him, allowing him to get a closer look at what it takes to build something valuable.