How Africa can profit from growing demand for plant-based protein

Michiel Timmerman

The market for meat alternatives is expanding, creating opportunities for agricultural producers and processors globally and within Africa. In March 2023, Michiel Timmerman founded RIFT Protein, a food technology company specialising in the extraction of plant-based protein. Timmerman, the founder and managing partner of Mbuyu Capital, has an extensive background of investing in Africa. Recently, Jeanette Clark interviewed him to explore the potential business opportunities in Africa related to the alternative protein industry.

Can you briefly explain the difference between plant-based protein and cultured (or lab-grown) meat?

Plant-based protein is the extract you need to provide some of the texture and nutritional value in plant-based meat substitutes. The most high-profile meat alternative is plant-based burgers and several companies produce that. You have a variety of plants that can produce this type of protein extract and the trick is that you don’t want to retain any plant-based flavour; you want the extract to be white and not coloured.

There are nine amino acids that the human body needs, but can’t produce itself. So when you look at protein extracts, you look for a source that has a good amino acid composition. Different plants have different levels of these amino acids, and this, along with other properties, determines their suitability for use in meat substitutes.

Cultured meat is something totally different. That is when stem cells are taken by biopsy from animals, whether it be chicken, beef, pork, or even seafood. The cells are taken in a state where they are still replicating and then encouraged in a lab to continue to replicate multiple times. Originally a serum from cow foetuses (foetal bovine serum) was used to provide the nutrients required by the cells to replicate, but recently a synthetic media has been used to get away from using animal products completely. The meat grown in the lab is often of a mince-meat consistency. Essentially the producers then have to find a way to turn that into something that looks more like normal meat and there are several ways of doing that.

There are many benefits of moving away from the consumption and production of livestock-farmed animal meat. It would limit the impact of particularly methane from beef production. In addition, animals are poor converters of feed protein into protein for human consumption, meaning that we need to feed animals a lot of crops to produce the meat protein that is then eaten by humans. Soya, one of the crops used, consumes a lot of water, which is, again, detrimental to the planet and has led to deforestation in order to meet demand, for example in Latin America. Then, of course, there is the topic of animal welfare. While it is nice to see cows roaming in fields, the majority of meat production is done in a factory setup where animal welfare is generally not great.

For which of these two products do you see the greatest opportunity on the African continent?

At the moment, I believe that Africa has an opportunity as a large-scale source of crops for the extraction of plant-based protein. There are different peas and beans that are grown on the continent which is ideal. The refined extract product can then be exported, while the waste left from the process – e.g. non-extracted protein, leaves, stalks and stems – can be used to produce animal feed. This is where RIFT Protein sees an opportunity and is an area we are looking at developing.

Which crops are most suitable for the extraction of plant-based protein?

The most common crop for extraction of plant-based protein is soya, which is produced in Africa in countries like Zambia by large commercial farmers.

The other crops, which we find more interesting, are mung beans (also called green grams) and cowpeas. Mung beans are currently being used for protein extraction by various companies in Asia and Europe that focus on egg alternatives. They are grown in many places in Africa as a smallholder crop and there is an opportunity for companies to aggregate these crops at scale for producers of plant-based protein.

RIFT Protein and others are involved in a project with Wageningen University from the Netherlands, investigating the viability of cowpeas from West Africa for the extraction of the protein.

We are also looking at RuBisCO, which is a protein that is part of the photosynthesis process and found in all plant leaves. The challenge with RuBisCO is that it is only found in small quantities in the leaf and therefore you need the source material at scale – you are looking at only 1% or 2% of the entire leaf that can be extracted. In New Zealand, a company is growing alfalfa (also known as lucerne) for this purpose while some companies look at water lentils, and others use by-products such as the leaves from sugar beets.

The latter is what we want to do – find the crops that have large volumes of leaves as a waste product and then work on perfecting the extraction process.

Are there other companies in Africa currently involved in the extraction of the protein?

There is some technology involved in the extraction process itself, which is a feasible option to implement in Africa. It is not nearly as complicated as growing cells the way you have to for cultured meat.

There is also a wide spectrum of demand for plant-based protein extract. Some companies need the highest quality for the production of meat alternatives, while others, like those that produce energy drinks, can use a dried powder version that is easier to produce. As a new entrant in the market, you could decide to produce these entry-level products.

It is still a very new area and I am not aware of large investments that have been made in Africa; there are a couple of companies that are raising some funds. What you need to get right is where you position your product on the spectrum of plant-based protein needs and then find a way to limit your cost of production. This is something we are also still grappling with.

Does RIFT Protein envision diversifying into the production of plant-based meat alternatives, potentially utilising your protein extracts to make burgers and other similar items?

Where I see RIFT Protein stopping is at the B2B end. We will produce the extract and sell it to people who make plant-based meat substitutes. We are not experts in consumer behaviour or FMCG and think that is better left to other companies who operate in that sector.

There have been concerns about the extensive processing involved in creating meat alternatives. What are your thoughts on this?

If you look at the average diet in the developed world, there are huge amounts of processed foods involved. The concerns of the consumers that are already enjoying a diet filled with processed foods should possibly be taken with a pinch of salt.

Criticism from clean-living natural-product enthusiasts is understandable, but that is a small subset of the population. Is it a refined product? Yes, it is, but people happily eat other refined products.

Do you foresee a future where we won’t need to shape meat alternatives to mimic traditional meat? In other words, would consumers be satisfied eating protein sources, such as mung beans, in their natural form?

When we embarked on this path we did ask ourselves why bother with all this hassle. Why can’t people just eat beans, rather than a plant-based burger, made from beans, imitating meat burgers? This is why I don’t really want to do B2C because people are complicated, and consumer behaviour is a bit of a specialist subject.

In broad terms, changing behaviour around eating is very difficult. Getting people who expect to eat meat daily to change their food habits is tough and if your primary motivation is to chip away at greenhouse gas emissions or to improve animal welfare, providing meal alternatives in a form that resembles meat is a good place to start. It will always be a limited market, but people eat an awful lot of meat, so even taking 1% of the market is a significant opportunity.