Food-tech companies worldwide are striving to develop innovative technologies that will facilitate nutrition solutions for billions of starving people, especially in African and Asian countries. This need is also being addressed in Israel where the development of new foods is being accompanied by innovations in the field of food security, such as insurance for agricultural crops against damage caused by the weather. Simon Schwall, founder and CEO of OKO, and among the first to identify this need, has developed a simple and low-cost technological solution for selling insurance to farmers. "Many farmers in Africa run the risk of losing their source of income if their crops are damaged because of drought or floods," he explains. Schwall was first exposed to the mobile payments revolution in Africa while working as a communications consultant in Papua New Guinea for a company that provided health sector micro-finance and life insurance policies via mobile network operators. "Alongside the business opportunities, this is also a way to change the lives of many people who don't own a bank account and to lower the risks they face," he describes. "I searched for a simple and affordable technological means that would enable me to sell insurance to these farmers. Mobile services such as "mobile money", satellite images and weather data offer us the solution. The satellite imagery and weather data help to verify the data on the ground when a payment claim is submitted without the need to send an assessor to remote locations, thereby ensuring a process that is automatic, efficient and cheaper."
OKO was officially founded in April 2018. "We chose Mali for several reasons," explains Schwall. "There are already about 4 million people in Mali using Mobile Money – one of the highest rates in Africa, and approximately 80% of the population work in agriculture. Other factors influencing my choice were the connections I had with people at 'Orange' who were operating in Mali and the fact that most of the country's crops are relatively low cost. This all lowers the cost of the insurance compared for example to countries growing vanilla, a much higher-cost crop. I am pleased to report that although Israel and Mali don't have official diplomatic relations, all the reactions I received were warm and supportive.
Electronic Wallet and Crop Insurance by SMS
Mobile Money is an electronic wallet that operates without a bank account which can also be used via SMS. There is no need for an internet connection or a smartphone – the "money" is transferred via a digital account run by the mobile network operator. The price of the insurance is determined according to the farmer's precise location, the type of crop, and the size of the plantation. The farmer can send his details and receive a price quote via SMS. "In northern Mali for example, the extremely low rainfall raises the cost of the insurance to 30% of the coverage," Schwall explains, "and therefore, out of a desire to offer an affordable product, we decided to focus on the south of the country and on corn and cotton – Mali's two primary crops. We sell insurance against damages caused by drought and will soon also begin selling policies providing coverage for flood damage. We insured 450 farmers as part of the pilot we conducted and are now preparing for commercial launch in September-October for all 'Orange' clients throughout most of Mali, without the need for an internet connection.
"Because 80% of the population in Mali work in agriculture, some in very remote locations, recruiting the first 450 customers for the pilot was a difficult process. We employed and trained local agents and brought them to the capital Bamako to present the concept to them. They subsequently returned to their own village or community in order to explain the idea to the local population. The agents are remunerated with a commission for each customer purchasing the insurance so that they also benefit from the opportunity to generate an income."
The Double Impact – A Safety Net and a Development Incentive
"The assistance we received from the Innovation Authority was very important," says Schwall. "I immigrated to Israel from France and participated in an incubator program for new immigrants run by the Authority through which I was accepted to the Grand Challenge Program. Raising capital for a company at such an early stage is very difficult and the assistance and support provided by the Innovation Authority was therefore very significant for us in creating the actual product and in being able to recruit financing from additional sources. I am currently using some of this capital for R&D purposes in the cocoa sector in the Ivory Coast.
One of our benchmarks for measuring success is the change in the ratio of farmers who succeed in increasing their crop yield and, consequently, their income. We contact micro-finance suppliers and ask them to agree to extend credit to our customers based on our insurance policy that provides coverage in the event of severe damage to the crops. We therefore provide a safety net against the uncertainties caused by client change."
OKO's vision is to enhance the quality of lives of residents in countries where most of the citizens work in small-scale agriculture – on small farms that sustain a few families – and who don't have access to a bank account or to the financial system, either due to lack of literacy or because they live in outlying areas that lack internet coverage. "We do so by supplying an affordable and readily-available safety net that has a double impact – an agricultural backup for the farmer's family in the event of drought or flooding, and the opportunity to develop his farm by receiving micro-finance from lenders who are reluctant to provide such finance without insurance. This is an incentive not merely for the individual farmer, but also for the entire local economy," concludes Schwall.
1 Billion People in Africa and Asia Suffer from Protein Deficiency
Insurance of agricultural produce is a good means of providing the world's citizens with food security, but this also requires new food sources or substitutes for foods that are gradually dwindling. This is where the Israeli Hargol FoodTech company comes into the picture. Hargol has developed a method for mass production of edible grasshoppers that serve as a substitute and available source of protein.
Dror Tamir, the company's founder, still remembers his grandparents' stories about the swarms of locusts that descended upon the fields of Kibbutz Ma'anit where he grew up, and the efforts of the kibbutz members to drive them off by banging on pots and pans. At the same time, the Algerian, Moroccan and Yemenite families who joined the kibbutz would rush to collect the insects that they considered a nutritious delicacy.
Tamir eventually became a serial entrepreneur in the food and nutrition industries and today serves as the founding CEO of Hargol Foodtech, that supplies food solutions via a unique technology it has developed for industrial scale growing of grasshoppers as an affordable and readily available source of protein. "Grasshoppers are the ultimate solution for the expected future deficiency in protein, the demand for which will double in the years to come," clarifies Tamir. "The existing protein sources are being rapidly depleted, have severe environmental effects and require lengthy processing, and we are in the midst of a race to develop new protein sources that are healthier and friendlier to the environment."
Grasshoppers are nature's most efficient source of protein and have clear advantages – they possess the best nutritional composition in the animal world with over 70% protein and no waste, contain all the amino acids a person needs, and also Omega 3, Omega 6, zinc, iron and folic acid. They are almost neutral in flavor and fragrance and their natural inclination to gather in large swarms characterized by high density makes them suitable for intensive cultivation. And if all that isn't enough: grasshoppers are also defined as kosher in the bible, and as being parve (neither meat nor dairy). Grasshoppers are also accepted as Halal ("kosher") by Muslims and the New Testament states that the disciple John ate grasshoppers with honey. Furthermore, ecologically, cultivation of grasshoppers is 20 times more environmentally friendly and efficient than beef. This advantage is reflected in the lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption, the use of small agricultural areas and others," Tamir points out.
2.5 Billion People are Already Eating Grasshoppers
"There is a substantial global demand for grasshoppers," stresses Tamir. 2.5 billion people consume grasshoppers as part of their diet – throughout Asia (primarily Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and China), in Africa (from South Africa in the south through Uganda – where their price is double that of beef – in the east, all the way to Morocco in the north), and in Central America (mainly in Mexico).
Considering such advantages, the worldwide impact of these food sources is obvious. "We develop methods and technologies for the industrial cultivation of grasshoppers," Tamir explains. "The farm is located on the Golan Heights and our unique technology enables manufacturing capabilities that reach advanced industrial levels. Our first major significant development was the creation of a climate-controlled environment that enables uniform year-round cultivation of grasshoppers at very high quality. It also allows control of parameters such as temperature, humidity, lighting and density, and over the food that the grasshoppers eat."
"The second development is the incubation of the eggs. In nature, grasshoppers have a single eight to ten-week life cycle – the rest of the time they exist as eggs in the ground that only hatch after 40 weeks. We hatch grasshoppers in two weeks and they therefore complete 10 cycles a year instead of one. Our third development is unique cages that facilitate vertical farming in stacked layers."
Hargol FoodTech's developments increase on-site production ten-fold. "We have made grasshopper cultivation both efficient and modular – a method that can be copied and expanded," Tamir explains. The company, that started out in 2014, recently launched its first large feeding facility on the Golan Heights. The company has 4 facilities in northern Israel – a reproduction facility including incubation, a fattening facility, and two facilities for growing feeding materials – fresh grass. Everything is conducted year-round in an enclosed indoors space in a uniform and regular manner.
What Would You Like? A Grasshopper Snack or Protein Powder?
The company has two basic products. The first – whole dried grasshoppers for which there is a demand in various countries, including in Europe and the US. "The Seattle Mariners baseball stadium in the US serves a dish of fried grasshoppers that is almost always sold out," says Tamir proudly. The second product is protein powder. "We grind the whole grasshoppers into a powder which we then sell as an ingredient for the food industry. Food manufacturers in Europe and the US use it to prepare a wide range of products such as breads, beer, pasta, snacks and others. Because the powder is flavorless, it can be used to enhance the nutritional value of any product. We still can't sell this product in Israel because the Ministry of Health has yet to grant its approval, even though such approval has already been given in other countries worldwide."
Everyone is Gradually Realizing the Global Impact
"The impact begins with the fact that grasshoppers are a very efficient product to grow as a source of protein. They emit less greenhouse gases and consume 1000 times less water than beef. An average of 200 square meters is required to grow a kilo of beef compared to only 15 square centimeters for a kilo of grasshoppers. We utilize 100% of the grasshopper while over 50% of the cow goes to waste," says Tamir. "Growing grasshoppers is also more moral because they are cold-blooded creatures. When we lower the temperature in the cages, they fall asleep and die without suffering, and this is also the reason that at least some vegetarians and vegans allow themselves to eat grasshoppers."
Hargol FoodTech recently won two awards from the Innovation Authority: in the field of agricultural innovation and in the "Challenges" Program. "The Grand Challenges Israel Incentive Program is a joint initiative of the Innovation Authority and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' International Collaboration Center and is part of the International Grand Challenges Program," explains Patricia Lahy-Engel, Senior Director of Social R&D at the Innovation Authority. "The initiative's goal is to develop technological solutions for health, water, and food security challenges in developing countries. This incentive program encourages Israeli technological innovation in the field and the penetration into new markets - out of a genuine desire to help these countries."
Aharon Aharon, CEO of the Innovation Authority: "The Israeli food-tech industry is in the midst of a welcome trend: the capital raised in the young industry, numbering approximately 250 companies, has almost tripled in the last five years. This rapid growth is part of the global trend of population growth and aging that necessitates the development of innovative food sources and technologies. Fortunately, Israel is considered one of the world's leaders in this field and attracts investors and capital funds seeking food-tech investment opportunities”.
As Tamir stresses: "there are a billion people in Africa and Asia suffering from protein deficiency who consider grasshoppers a delicacy. Our solution can supply them this food throughout the year, at better quality, and more efficiently – while at the same time reducing the price. We really can feed the world. Moreover, the idea developed together with the Innovation Authority is to design cages for the individual farmer so that he can increase his income and provide food for his family."
"Our vision is to be the world's leading company in growing insects for human food. We believe that grasshoppers can be the answer, both for developing countries in Africa and Asia where nutrition can be improved by supplying protein at affordable prices and in developed nations in Europe and the US where they can replace less healthy foods. The grants we received from the Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture will assist us in continuing our R&D activity aimed at improving efficiency while the grants from the Authority and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will help us prepare for global deployment," he concludes.