[Thailand] With modern agriculture techniques, farming is no longer confined to rural areas; food can now be grown in dense urban areas where space is available. Urban farming provides direct access to fresh vegetables, fruits, and meat products. Therefore urban agriculture improves food security and food safety.
Algae’s rich biodiversity and high levels of protein and lipids lead many to believe in its future potential as a food crop for both people and animals. Algae cultivation uses minimal amounts of natural resources, and are thus regarded as the most sustainable crop in the world. The use of algae in the food, feed, and energy sector has been studied extensively during the last few decades.
From this, Saumil Shah came out with the excellent idea of combining urban farming and algae cultivation using rooftop space on top of highrises. This idea began 8 years ago in 2008, with the formation of Energaia Company Limited, and it has been producing algae food since 2012 for Bangkok’s urban residents.
Born in the United States, Saumil is an engineer who used to work with General Electric. While working in the USA in 2007, he came across a carbon dioxide sequestration project, utilizing microalgae to make biofuel. That was the first time that he learned about the wonder of algae – the ability to grow and accumulate nutritional compounds quicker than any land-based plants on Earth. Soon, Saumil realized that there were many other applications of microalgae in various industries and he became fascinated by algae.
Saumil had lived in Bangkok in 2006, and he recalled that the excellent weather and abundance of sunlight in Thailand are perfect conditions to grow one of his favorite algae – Spirulina.
Money carefully spent on R&D and construction
Saumil studied algae cultivation methods extensively after starting his company. He setup a laboratory in the province of Ayutthaya, Thailand in 2011 and by trial and error, he started growing Spirulina in plastic bag bioreactors. However, during the monsoon season of 2011, a severe flood which persisted for a few months hit Thailand. Their entire Spirulina cultivation facility in Ayutthaya was destroyed. Saumil suffered huge losses worth more than USD 150,000.00. No insurance could cover his loss.
However, that did not stop Saumil from pursuing his dream. But he decided to relocate his project to the city of Bangkok instead.
Agricultural land is scarce in the city of Bangkok. Through a friend he met, Manuel Reymondin, the resident manager of the Novotel Bangkok at Siam Square, who was persuaded to rent their 90 m2 rooftop to Saumil for experimentation with urban Spirulina cultivation.
By 2012 Saumil was able to successfully grow 90 containers of Spirulina culture on the rooftop of the Novotel.
“I have spent about USD 750,000 of my savings on this business.” Saumil told Algae World News.
“There were 90 containers filled with Spirulina when we started at Novotel’s rooftop. Now we have around 900 containers also growing at Phrapadaeng, a green business area which is just 20 minutes drive from the city center.” Saumil stated.
Now, Energaia has more than 8 employees. Last year, Energaia even started to generate revenue of USD 70,000.00.
The company now sells freshly harvested wet Spirulina paste as a beverage additive and an ingredient for making noodles. The fresh Spirulina can also be packed and frozen for long-term storage.
The key to use Spirulina in the food industry is to use them when they are still fresh. Most processed Spirulina powder comes with a fishy odor, which makes it difficult to be added into any food recipe.
The company now produces four different kinds of pasta with 14% of fresh Spirulina content. The pastas, known as Skyline Premium Pastas, are free of egg. This makes the pastas completely vegan. The company also has started producing rice noodles with 10% fresh Spirulina added. These Spirulina rice noodles are also gluten free.
Energaia’s fresh Spirulina paste is added directly to wheat or rice flour to make pasta and noodles. This ensures maximum preservation of nutrients and freshness. Energaia’s Skyline Premium Pastas has less fat, zero cholesterol, more protein, and an array of vitamins and minerals. Skyline pasta delivers the flavor and texture that one expects from a premium egg pasta without the cholesterol.
Saumil told Algae World News that Energaia is exporting their Spirulina food products to several countries including Germany, Vietnam, and Bangladesh.
When asked about the shelf life and preservation of fresh Spirulina products, Saumil stressed that there is no preservative added.
“Currently, we are harvesting about 300 kg of fresh Spirulina paste (70% water content) from our farms every month and we use it fresh right after every harvest. Properly kept in the refrigerator, the shelf life of our fresh Spirulina paste is 1 month without the need of preservatives. And the frozen paste can last for at least 1 year without any preservatives.” said Saumil.
“Keeping the water content low is important to extend our product’s shelf life. We developed a low cost centrifugal technique to remove 30% of the water.” Saumil further explained.
EnerGaia has also developed a proprietary algae production line that balances the costs of system installation, maintenance, and operation with algal growth rate making it one of the most efficient producers of Spirulina in the world.
“We may have our technology transferred to any party of interest” Saumil said.
Energaia is expanding rapidly due to increasing demand for their fresh Spirulina products. Odorless fresh Spirulina, which can be added not only to noodles, has gained interest by many international food processing companies. Saumil expressed their interest in looking for strategic partners to develop more food products with Spirulina.
“We are very positive about our prospects. Not many people know about Spirulina. We believe that one day Spirulina will become as common as kale on our dinner table.” Saumil said.
Not many algae start-ups survive 8 years upon commercialization. Energaia is one of the exceptions. With the increasing demand on fresh food, in addition to the growing recognition and popularity of Spirulina, this market will soon become one of the trendiest healthy foods around the world.
Contact Saumil now to learn more about Energaia’s Spirulina products: [email protected]
Photo: EnerGaia team at ASEAN Social Impact Challenge 2015
Exclusively reported by Algae World News