A report by Unilever states that by the year 2050, planet Earth will have 10 billion people. It estimates that this population will need 70 percent more food than is currently being produced. And thus, changing the world’s food system is no longer a choice but the only way forward.
One of the ways to ensure that the future food needs are met without compromising on the environment and the nutrition intake is to shift towards sustainable food options.
In addition, since the outbreak of the coronavirus, there has been a steady rise in the demand for superfoods — foods that are dense in nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. People are becoming increasingly conscious of what is going inside their bodies and are leaning on superfoods to make healthier choices.
One example of a superfood is Spirulina, referred to as blue-green algae that have multiple health benefits, and is a combination of several nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. While it is already well-known in the European and American markets, it isn’t that popular in the Indian subcontinent.
In 2015, Aakas Sadasivam, an aeronautical engineer from Kumaraguru College of Technology, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, was taken by the startup fever. Looking for ideas to venture in, he came across reports of malnutrition, a concern in India and Africa. In his research, Aakas found out that Spirulina can help solve malnutrition.
According to the Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Microalgae Spirulina against Malnutrition (IIMSAM), it offers “remarkable health benefits to an undernourished person.”
The United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) has also attested to these claims. In fact, in 1974, during the UN World Food Conference, Spirulina was declared as the ‘Best Food for the Future’.
Sowing the seeds of a successful venture
In 2016, Aakas started growing and harvesting Spirulina from a ‘pilot pond’ on a small area in Chennai. For one year, he grew and harvested Spirulina on his own, learning the techniques for making the powder, which is the end product.
He harvested about 10 kgs of Spirulina every month, processed it, and sold the powder to local food and pharma companies.
In October 2016, Finnish entrepreneur Mika Rautio wanted to join him. Both Aakas and Mika invested $100,000 to start the company, which was formally registered in January 2017 and named Prolgae Spirulina Supplies Pvt Ltd.
In 2019, the company raised $100,000 from a Slovakian angel investor. Aakas claims that it has managed to clock a turnover of Rs 1.5 crore annually. The company also has a European Union organic certification from the Control Union (CU).
How it works
At present, Prolgae Spirulina has five pilot ponds, each of which is 400 sq mts. The manufacturing process starts with inoculating the mother culture in the pond and leaving it for 10 to 15 days.
Then, the Spirulina is harvested, washed, processed, and moulded into spaghetti form and dried using the sun drying method in a closed greenhouse.
Aakas says that there are two methods used to dry Spirulina — sun drying and spray drying. Prolgae Spirulina uses the sun-drying method because of its current operational scale. In Europe, the spray drying method is popular because the demand is very high and production also takes place at a large level.
The main difference between the two methods is that in the sun drying method, the harvested spirulina is dried at a temperature of 30 to 35 degree Celsius, while the spray drying method puts the slurry into a funnel and dries it at a temperature of around 120 degree Celsius.
Aakas says Europeans are increasingly demanding Spirulina dried using the sun-dried method as vital nutrients and vitamins are lost in the spray drying process. After drying for almost four hours, the Spirulina is then crushed into nibs and powder, which is sent for packaging and selling.
At a time, 5 gm of Spirulina powder can be mixed with food, juices, or smoothies and consumed.
“One kg of Spirulina is equivalent to 1,000 kg of assorted vegetables. The superfood contains 12 vitamins, eight minerals, along with high antioxidants. It is also a good immunity booster.”
Spirulina is also used by NASA for astronauts travelling to space as a dietary supplement.
Indian market versus the West
Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, people across the world are rushing to add turmeric, proteins, and immunity boosting powders to their diets.
While the Indian market is just picking up steam, Aakas says that the European and American markets have developed quite an affinity towards superfoods. According to a report by research platform, Credence Research, Europe had a major market for algae products in 2017 and it is expected to retain its dominance till 2026.
“They love Spirulina, they don’t care about the smell and taste. All they care about is what is going inside their body,” he adds.
However, the same cannot be said for Indian customers. Last year, when Prolgae Spirulina was listed on Amazon India, Aakas realised that Indians were not buying the products because they were not gratifying their taste buds.
The company now has a few nutritionists and researchers on board to work on the taste so as to customise it for the Indian audience. Aakas says, “We are looking at ways to make it sweeter and healthier at the same time. For example, we are planning to add honey powder and cocoa powder, along with cinnamon and cardamom.”
According to IIMSAM, Spirulina is currently being produced in 22 countries and used in over 77 countries. Recently, FMCG giant Unilever also announced its partnership with microalgae to move towards the goal of sustainable manufacturing of food.
Prolgae Spirulina is not the only Spirulina manufacturer in India. Algene Biotech and E.I.D Parry (India) Ltd. are some of the popular names in this space.
Versatility is the USP
One of the reasons why algae have such widespread adoption is because of its versatile nature. Not only does it provide a whole lot of nutrition to the body, but it is also good for the environment.
According to a report by Cornell Alliance for Science, Mexican scientist Daniel Garza developed an environmental biotechnology project for air decontamination through microalgae in Mexico. The report also states that algae multiply quickly, meaning that Spirulina can be grown for 10 to 15 days, and even after some it is harvested, the rest will multiply on its own.
Aakas says that no industrialisation is needed in the process. It requires minimum wastage or usage of water and the returns are much larger. According to reports, the production of microalgae is environment friendly because it requires low carbon, land and water footprint.
The road ahead
At present, Prolgae Spirulina supplies to France, Italy, Spain, and Canada through 15 B2B clients. A packet of one kg of Spirulina nibs or powder is priced at Rs 2,500. The company claims to produce 500 kgs of Spirulina every month, and so far exported 10,000 kgs of Spirulina.
In the next three to five years, the company is focused on B2C sales in India. Prolgae Spirulina plans to introduce chocolates, cookies, and juices containing Spirulina to its product portfolio. The business is targeting gym chains, doctors, nutritionists, and working women as target customers in India.
Aakas is also in talks with a Mumbai-based manufacturer to produce tablets and medicines containing the same. The team is looking to introduce products containing Chlorella, another superfood.
Prolgae Spirulina aims to raise funds to expand across Indian and southeast Asian geographies like Singapore and Thailand, and the Middle East.
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