Somewhere in Ara Damansara, the basement and ground floor of a three-storey shoplot bustles with energy and activity – this is after all the home of 20kg of live crickets.
These spindly bugs, found in gardens and fields everywhere – will live for six to eight weeks in the shoplot, before reaching their final destination – the palates of discerning Malaysian consumers eager to embrace a more planet-friendly source of protein.
The project is the brainchild of a Malaysian start-up company called Ento, founded by 26-year-old lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Kevin Wu Khai Woon.
Although it is still in its infancy, the enterprise is a timely one that is answering the resounding clarion call of sustainable agriculture.
Why eat bugs?
Entomophagy (the consumption of insects) has been around for centuries. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation in its paper ‘Future prospects for food and food security’, there are at least 1,900 edible insects and approximately two billion people around the world who eat these creepy crawlies as part of their traditional diets.
This is exemplified by people in Thailand who eat deep-fried crispy beetles and locusts as street food and rural denizens in Borneo who munch on grasshoppers, cicadas and termites.
But it is only in recent years that insects have been touted as the food of the future, in line with growing concerns about the swelling global population.
By 2050, the human population is expected to be nine billion. In order to feed all these hungry mouths, current food production will need to double. Given that overfishing is rampant and 70% of agricultural land is used to breed livestock, a more planet-friendly solution is required, and all the signs are pointing towards insects.
Insects reputedly emit fewer greenhouse gases and require half as much food as chicken and pigs as well as significantly less land for rearing. Then there are the health benefits associated with insects – many of which are protein-rich and high in calcium, iron and zinc.
Edible insects have also become fashionable – Justin Timberlake served ants coated in black garlic at his 2018 album launch party while Angelina Jolie was seen frying up a meal of scorpions and other bugs in a BBC News video.
For all these reasons and so many more, Wu was propelled to start Ento. “I came across an article about edible insects and was really fascinated by the idea of crickets for human consumption. As I did more research, I found out that crickets and other insects have a very good value proposition for the future,” he explains.
So with some money from his family, Wu rented a shoplot (he went to 20 different places before finding the right one), bought some crickets from a supplier who typically supplies to pet shops and with help from an experienced farm manager, started breeding the insects with the idea of turning them into snacks.
Although Wu and his team now have their “recipe” down pat, he says getting the temperature, feed and other elements of cricket-breeding correct initially proved to be quite a challenge.
“It’s quite technical, there’s no blueprint on how to farm insects, because right now Malaysia lacks the expertise of having people working this field,” he says.
Consequently, it took Wu and his team about six months to perfect the means and methods of processing their crickets.
Ento crickets are housed in sanitised pens and fed commercial chicken feed, which is composed of corn, soybean and wheat. Once the crickets mature, their frass (poop) and other impurities are separated, and they are then placed in a deep-freezer for 12 hours, which is the most humane way of killing them.
“When we freeze them, they actually go into a really deep sleep, so it’s a bit like when they are in the wild and hibernate. We freeze them for at least 12 hours so they just sleep and don’t wake up again,” says Wu.
After this, the crickets are slow-roasted at temperatures ranging between 140ºC to 160ºC for at least three hours until 80% of the moisture evaporates – this also effectively kills bacteria while preserving the insects’ nutritional value. Samples are then sent to a lab for lab testing, before being packed.
Wu says farming the crickets has proven very sustainable, as according to their data, crickets require 12 times less feed, 15 times less water and 14 times less land than conventional livestock farming.
“I’m very passionate about sustainability. As a millennial, I feel that it’s part of our DNA to want to see change and a better future. So we are trying to get people to think about how they define food and expand their horizons to see food and sustainability as something that is important,” he says.
Interestingly, Wu says Malaysia is the ideal breeding ground for crickets, because the insects actually thrive in heat and humidity.
“Malaysia has a competitive advantage, because the warm and humid climate is suitable for crickets, whereas our Canadian and American competitors have to pay for high heating costs. But for us, we can farm it locally at a lower cost and use our natural environment to our advantage,” he says.
The taste test
At the moment, Ento produces both cricket powder (priced at RM29.90 for 100g) as well as a range of whole roasted crickets in flavours like Korean kimchi, salted egg yolk and Texas barbecue, priced at RM19.90 for a 25g pack.
Each packet of roasted crickets is rich in protein – up to 60g of protein per 100g, which is much higher than the protein content of lean beef and chicken, which both clock in at under 40g. Data also shows that crickets contain 15% more iron than spinach and far more fibre than oatmeal.
“Those are some of the stats that people really like especially in a society where we are more health-conscious,” notes Wu.
Wu has tested his products at local artisanal bazaars like Riuh and says response has been better than expected, which shows that deep-rooted local squeamishness about eating insects might be – slowly – changing after all.
“Out of 10 people that you give crickets to, probably about two or three will not try it. Of the seven, there will be at least one or two who love our mission, vision and what we do. So at the moment, it’s still a fairly niche market, but I think, as with anything, over time, people’s perception will change,” he offers pragmatically.
Taste-wise, the crickets bear a passing similarity to fried ikan bilis and are crunchy, with a texture that dissolves easily on the palate. Of the flavouring agents, the salted egg yolk does the best job of adding a salty underbelly to the snack, while the Korean kimchi is the snack to order if you’re after more fiery critters.
The only downside to eating the crickets is you might find shrapnel in the form of disengaged legs, wings and other body parts getting trapped in the crevices between your teeth. So be forearmed with a glass of water to swill your mouth out after feasting on these little bugs.
Although Ento has only been in business for a few months, demand has been overwhelming. Wu’s team is operating on a backlog of orders and they are already looking at expanding.
“We produce about 20kg per month, which isn’t very much but we are projected to double or triple that within the next two or three months. And demand has been very good, because everything that we grow, sells,” notes Wu.
Eventually, Wu is looking at moving the business to a one-acre facility to expand output to 2.5 tonnes, a move that he hopes will propel them into the competitive international business-to-business market.
“We’re trying to compete with major players in Canada and America and I think we have an advantage, because our prices are 20% to 30% lower than others,” he says.
In the future, Wu is hoping to feed the crickets locally-grown mulberry leaves, which will lower costs as well as make the brand even more environmentally-friendly. There are also plans to introduce mealworms and silkworms to Ento’s insect stable.
“This will happen when we have the scale and our own land, and are able to work on different methods. Then we’ll take it a step further and supply to international markets,” says Wu.