July 6, 2015

EntoCube bitten by the philanthropic bug

The President of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete (in red tie), paid a visit to the EntoCube at Startup Sauna on 2 June. Otto Palonen (blue top), Robert Nemlander (light grey suit) and Perttu Karjalainen (aqua top) were on hand to introduce the concept.
The President of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete (in red tie), paid a visit to the EntoCube at Startup Sauna on 2 June. Otto Palonen (blue top), Robert Nemlander (light grey suit) and Perttu Karjalainen (aqua top) were on hand to introduce the concept.
Aalto University

As insect consumption becomes less of a taboo on the Western market, this Finnish startup is tackling other worldly concerns.

The backstreets of Beijing’s Dongcheng District are cluttered with various market stalls. Among these, long wooden skewers lie in perfect formation showcasing a range of delicacies. At first glance, they appear to be unremarkable; a snack while ambling through the backstreets and alleyways of China’s capital. Closer inspection reveals something altogether more striking: rows of scorpions, cicadas and silkworms, their unfamiliar culinary temptation simultaneously shocking and intriguing for passing throngs of tourists.

But, what if we lived in a world where such creepy-crawly consumption was commonplace?

Oh, wait a minute, we do!

Whilst Western culture is restrained by taboos surrounding the practise, some 80 per cent of the global population consumes insects as part of their regular diet. On paper it’s easy to see why. Often containing higher levels of protein than fish and lower in fat, their benefits extend beyond nutrition. Farming insects consumes around 1 000 times less water than beef, and has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95 per cent.

“There are about 2 000 edible insects,” confirms EntoCube’s Perttu Karjalainen. “Most [Western] people are turning to insects because they are so much more efficient.”

Case-in-point is the EntoCube, a refitted shipping container that utilises food scraps to harvest between 10-15 000 insects daily.

“That’s pretty much five kilos a day for food,” his colleague Otto Palonen emphasises. “Or more than one-and-a-half tonnes per year.”

Local solution

Founded a year ago by Karjalainen, Palonen, Robert Nemlander and Hannes Sjöblad, EntoCube is located at Aalto University’s Startup Sauna. At full capacity, the Cube can house half a million European house crickets in various stages of development. However, although they can fetch up to 80 euros per kilogram on the chic Western market, the crickets are not being refined into powder. EU restrictions on such commerce have seen EntoCube turn its sights towards a more pressing global concern.

“Our endgame is ending world hunger,” Karjalainen outlines.

With an estimated 805 million people worldwide currently undernourished, this is no small task. Thus Entocube is first strengthening its local collaboration.

“The first ten-or-so Cubes we want to sell here in the Nordics and Baltics,” Nemlander explains. “We are not only selling the Cubes, but also the initial population and education as to how to get the most out of this. Then we are moving into the Southeast Asian market.”

Crawling with possibilities

Focusing on a region where eating whole insects is a common practise, the team seeks collaboration with NGOs or governmental organisations dealing with food and development aid, in order to bring their self-sufficient solution as close to the end users as possible.

“The idea is not only about bringing people food, it’s about giving them livelihood so they make profit,” Palonen explains. “You can use it to feed yourself and your family, but also sell the rest of the insects. Five kilos a day is plenty.”

With crickets priced at around 2.50 euros per kilogram in Cambodia, utilising EntoCube has the potential to boost an individual’s annual income to 4 000 euros – quadruple the average.

The Cube could also act as a commercial disposal point for expired foodstuffs, and even help turn gardens into a complete ecosystem by utilising cricket droppings as fertilizer.

This all lies ahead. For the time being the quartet is seeking a capital boost from angel investors.

“Nobody will solve world hunger by accident,” Nemlander reminds. “That’s the main key.”

The Cube has a capacity of around half a million insects. Perttu Karjalainen (left) and Hannes Sjöblad reveal its inner workings.

The Cube has a capacity of around half a million insects. Perttu Karjalainen (left) and Hannes Sjöblad reveal its inner workings.

Otto Palonen

Text: James O’Sullivan

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