Startup puts Africa’s first cultivated meat on the menu

South African biotech firm Mzansi Meat is kickstarting Africa’s food revolution in a bid to fill the protein gap and provide a greener alternative to local tastes.


Image : Mzansi Meat

The global agriculture sector is one of the world’s biggest sources of climate-corrosive gases. Bovine belching and flatulence produce the powerful greenhouse gas methane, which is around 80 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere in the first twenty years after its release.

But methane emissions are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the threat that red meat production poses to the planet.

Livestock farming contributes 18% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, roughly equivalent to all the pollution caused by ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport put together, Greenpeace estimates.

Livestock in Africa accounts for one third of the global livestock population. Forests across the continent are being slashed and burned every year to clear the way for cattle-rearing which transforms forests, wetlands and savannas from environmentally beneficial carbon sinks into CO2 emitters.

Rearing livestock also ravages land, with 48% of rangelands in sub-Saharan Africa degraded due to overgrazing.

But one startup in Africa’s leading beef producer, South Africa, is helping the continent eat its way to a more sustainable future.

Mzansi Meat Co., which dubs itself the continent’s first cellular agriculture startup, unveiled Africa’s first cultivated meat burger in March.

The Cape Town biotech say they started the company to revolutionise the continent’s food systems. Its cultivated meat products are manufactured using a peppercorn-sized cell sample from a cow which is then grown in a controlled environment.

To produce cultivated meat – also referred to as clean meat, cell-based meat, or slaughter-free meat – the cells are grown in bioreactors, where they differentiate into muscle and fat, producing genuine meat without the need to raise and slaughter an animal.

“Essentially the process is that you’re growing the cells and giving it the same nutrients and environment that the cells would need inside the cow’s body as it would outside. So we give it sugars and amino acids and protein and everything your cells need to grow at 37 degrees,” says says co-founder and CFO Tasneem Karodia.

The manufacturing process emits five times less emissions than the conventional meat industry, Karodia says.

“We were really just looking to make a protein that is better for the environment, better for people because its healthier, and better for animals, and this is a more efficient way of producing the same proteins that people consume.

“And if you can get the cost down, which I believe you can after we scale, you’re able to give greater access to protein for people who don’t currently have it.”

Africa’s growing appetite for meat

As African economies develop and consumers gain greater purchasing power, meat consumption is expected to continue to increase. 

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that the consumption of beef on the continent will increase 200% between 2015 and 2050, while poultry consumption will grow by 211% and pork by 200%.

Demand for meat alternatives

However, growing consciousness of the environmental impact of conventional animal agriculture is having a knock-on effect on the demand for meat alternatives on people’s plates.

While plant-based protein products are currently more established in the global market, in the longer run their success will depend on the number of people who choose to become vegan or vegetarian.

“Cultured meat is predicted to triumph thanks to its fusion of sustainability and tailor-made nutrition, which should satisfy a diverse range of consumers,” predicts a report from Kearney.

The global cultivated meat market is expected to be worth over $12.7bn by 2030, with revenues expected to grow 410% between 2021 and 2030, research by Global Market Insights Inc finds.

In Africa, South Africa is leading the way, with a well-heeled cadre of millennials seeking planet-friendly alternatives and turning towards international brands like Beyond Meat.

South Africans are among the continent’s most enthusiastic red meat eaters, with the braai – or barbecue – at the heart of its culinary culture. South Africa’s cattle population is near 14m head, with an annual harvest of about 2.5m head, according to beef industry magazine Drovers.

But around 58% of South Africans say they would be willing to pay more for plant-based meats at a higher price point, a 2021 report from the Credence Institute found.

The same study found that 60% of South Africans would be willing to try cultivated meat, a figure that outstrips that of many Western countries.

“The reasons that they said they would consume cultivated meat are environmental, health and animal welfare,” Karodia says.

Addressing food insecurity

Another driver of change in the continent’s food industry is food insecurity. Low crop yields as a result of droughts, as well as conflict and economic hardship, left one in five Africans without enough food in 2020 according to World Vision. Lab grown products could help to mitigate the unpredictibility of climate-exposed agricultural systems. 

“If you look at Africa, there’s a lot of issues when it comes to food production. This is one way its more sustainable that you don’t have to have certain conditions in place to grow food,” Karodia says.

Yet there are still factors mitigating against the widespread consumer uptake of cultivated meat. 

“Several factors can work against the acceptance of artificial meat, notably its high price, the unnaturalness of the product, scepticism about the taste and concerns about the safety of associated production processes,” says a paper from the European Environment Agency.

Beefing up government support

Mzansi Meat plans to roll out cultivated burgers and a variation of South African barbecue sausages in the food service industry, but red tape and the difficulties of trading across Africa’s national borders remain a challenge.

“Our primary market is South Africa. Our aim is to plan and grow into the African market, but a lot of it will come down to funding,” says Karodia.

The company is currently in talks with South African regulators to define the nascent lab grown meat industry in the nation’s food sector legislation.

Despite being oversubscribed in its pre-seed funding round (amount undisclosed) in August last year, the company says it needs government grants to build the infrastructure to scale up operations and expand into East Africa.

That raises the question over whether the cultivated meat industry is currently ready to stand on its own feet without significant government support.

“We’ve benefited from grants in the country, but there aren’t a lot of grants for the space to build-up food tech ecosystems. The infrastructure exists but the landscape for funding is not yet up for the type of business we are. We are looking at in the next two years building a private production facility that will kind of show we can scale,” says Karodia.

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