VITAL SIGNS: What flies can teach us about repairing the future
Cape Town-based visionary and ‘green business’ serial entrepreneur Jason Drew travels the world creating entities that will sustain natural resources, such as our dwindling fish supplies.
His latest venture involves fly farming, turning waste into larvae, and a protein-rich, natural animal feed.
He tells Sue Grant-Marshall about a ‘new sustainable revolution’, and how a health scare changed his life
You have jetted across the globe in leadership roles in companies such as GE and BUPA. Now you’re an environmentalist who wants to save the world from industries you used to work for. What happened?
Great deal, part of that a health problem, but to reduce it to essentials: I came to understand by reading and travelling extensively, that the world is running out of food. Every day, 25,000 people die from starvation, yet as many die of obesity-related conditions. Nearly 1-billion wake up hungry as a result of environmental damage we have caused.
Those are shocking figures; why is this happening?
Our oceans have been so over- fished that Canada’s Grand Banks and the Sea of Galilee fisheries collapsed some time ago. Britain has little left of its once great herring and cod catches.
So we’ll just have to eat chicken and farmed fish instead?
What do you think those massive battery chicken farms feed their fowl on? Fish taken from our seas — minced up into fish flakes, known as fishmeal, fed into industrial agricultural processes such as chicken and fish farming. We’re running out of food for the food we eat.
That is shocking indeed!
It is, and the poor suffer the worst, due to the current system of farming and distributing food. The rich are already consuming the water of the thirsty, eating the food of the hungry, and burning the fuel of the cold. We need to understand that the future of business lies in defining itself in terms of environment, not commercial targets, which lead to the rape of our seas, among other environmental crimes in the name of business.
How can business change?
In the past, we produced cars, and the environment had to fit in with the need for oil, and its by-product of pollution. Now it’s the other way around: we’re producing more environmentally friendly cars.
The industrial revolution is over?
Exactly. The sustainability revolution has started, and the way to make your fortune in the future will be in ways that are sustainable for our world.
How have you changed your way of working?
For a start, I began disinvesting in businesses and industries still rooted in the past. I had shares in everything — from oil to motor manufacturing — and they no longer made sense. Between 2008 and 2010, I sold everything I had. I now only start and invest in businesses that are not only sustainable, but repair the future.
What do you mean by that?
Well, the future is broken, we’ve destroyed too much; we need to repair that damage to have a future at all. One way I’m working to change that is through Agri-Protein, a venture I run with my brother, David Drew, outside Stellenbosch. We’re pioneering waste nutrient recycling by fly farming.
Sounds yukky; how does it work?
Pretty naturally, actually. I saw huge dams of blood from chicken slaughterhouses near my farm at Tulbagh, with massive swarms of flies hovering above them. Chicken and fish eat flies. It’s their natural food. We’ve worked out a way to use the eggs of those flies. We hatch them into larvae fed on existing waste from slaughterhouses, dry the larvae, and make sustainable protein for animal feed, Magmeal, used in our industrial agricultural businesses.
So, how do you move into the future with your Magmeal?
Next year it’s going industrial. We’re opening a factory that will make 100 tons a day of larvae. Once we’ve dried it, that will turn into 28,5 tons of protein- rich meal for animal feed.
That sounds like big business?
It is, but it’s the right business for today because it’s sustainable — it’s saving our seas for a start.
Did you envisage doing this when you were growing up?
My ambition was to retire before 40, and here I am at 44, working harder than ever — but doing good things that make me happy. I don’t actually run businesses any more.
So what do you do?
I come up with the ideas, get them started, and let others run them. Right now, I am working on one that exports more than 300-million mosquitoes a year; I’m busy with another that uses human sewerage to create fertiliser for farmers in Kenya.
Where does your entrepreneurial spirit come from?
My great grandfathers were entrepreneurs. One of them, Sir William Peat, started KPMG, the accounting firm. The other, Sir George Usher, started International Combustion that also owned Aberdare Cable here in SA. I’m an intense collector of information, and I read widely. Perhaps that comes from my intellectual parents; my father was a diplomat and my mother a linguist. I’m curious about life. I look behind doors when I enter a room.
Because that’s where people put their junk. It gives me insight into them.
What made you choose the work you’re in now?
Having a couple of heart attacks, having to slow down, and having the time to be involved with and absorbed by nature to the extent that I could see what was going wrong with it.
How did the heart attacks affect you?
They completely changed my life. I had been working in Johannesburg running industrial revolution businesses, ranging from satellite network connectivity to disaster recovery. My wife, Rachel, and I decided to move to the farm we’d had for many years in Tulbagh, with our three children. It was a big adjustment, but the only way to stop me from sneaking off and starting another business.
Is your work stressful?
I don’t do stress anymore. It’s counter-productive. The key to my lack of stress is now I don’t run any businesses myself. I don’t have people reporting directly to me, apart from my personal staff, such as my driver — I am not allowed to drive anymore — and my groom who looks after my horses for polo.
Surely you have some stress?
You are only stressed if things matter to you beyond their real importance. Not much is a matter of life and death — other than death itself.
What about anger — how do you manage yours?
I’d be surprised if I’ve raised my voice a handful of times in my life. I’ve learnt that becoming angry never gets you anywhere. My father never raised his voice. I have learned from him that reasoning and politeness get you much further.
Are you a workaholic?
Completely, yes — yet not in the true sense of the word. I’m always busy, doing fun things — reading, writing — two books so far — inventing sustainable businesses, talking to people around the world. My personal mission is to talk to 10,000 people, face to face, a year.
To understand how the world really works, and our interaction with nature from the perspective of an entrepreneur and a capitalist. I want to get across my message of how business can help to repair the future, as much as it has broken it in the past. I do this through Ted Talks, and at an eclectic range of conferences. I recently spoke at an international conference of spine surgeons in Spain, and then to aspirant Asian innovators in Australia.
What do you eat for breakfast?
A slice of wholegrain toast with blueberry jam, and strong English tea.
That’s slim pickings, what about lunch?
It’s usually salad made from what we grow in our garden — lettuce, spring onions, chives, lots of different types of parsley, rocket, and cheese made on a neighbour’s farm.
What about supper?
Now that’s a big affair. I am a passionate cook, and to relax I produce a six or seven course meal of small dishes. It could be Japanese with homemade miso soup, then pickles, followed by yakitori skewered chicken thighs with leeks, and miso-marinated fillet with shitake mushrooms. Or, I’ll go Italian — home-made tagliatelle, rabbit loins wrapped in home grown spinach, in a wine and mustard sauce and seared scallops in orange glaze.
That sounds like a production?
It’s my hobby. I switch off from about 4pm when I begin to plot and plan supper for my wife. I never answer the phone when I’m cooking; it’s concentrated, pure pleasure.
What do you drink with your delicious food?
Sauvignon Blancs or Pinot Noirs from our valley. I love Krone champagne, Sonnenberg, Rijks and Waverley organic wines.
What’s your favourite indulgence?
Serrano ham — it’s nutty, dry and reminds me of Spain.
Do you take vitamin and mineral supplements?
No. I have a balanced diet, so I don’t need them.
What exercise do you do?
My wife and I do mountain bike races whenever we can. I enjoy running on the farm to keep fit. I love playing polo, and manage that three times a week during the season. I am also planning to do the Midmar Dam swim with my son, Jack (15) next year.
What is the least healthy thing that you do?
Endless eating at restaurants when I am travelling, which I do a lot of.
How do you relax on a daily basis?
We escape to our secret garden on the farm. Yes you’re right, I modelled it on the book, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which I read as a kid.
We cleared dozens of hectares of wattle and Port Jackson, and discovered it had a magical place with a stream, near a small cliff, and three immense, 200-year-old oaks.
At the same time, we cleared hundreds of tons of rocks and boulders. We created a metre- thick and two metre-high wall to enclose the area. We’ve created paths, bridges over the streams and flower gardens with statues.
There’s a special door into the garden, and a stone ladder up the side of the wall, so the kids can climb up and run around it.
The garden is just for the family?
We open it once a year to the public, in September, to coincide with the Tulbagh Spring Arts Festival. We have also built a Hampton Court-style maze, with South African sculpture and art installations. It too is open to the public during the arts festival.
Is there a book, besides The Secret Garden, which has had an influence on your life?
The Meaning of the Twenty First Century by James Martin. He gave £100m to Oxford University to study the future, and describes this as a make or break century.
I also love The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s such an extraordinarily different way of thinking, and of describing the world we live in — it’s a touching story narrated by Death itself.
What are you reading now?
Dark Matters, a Ghost Story, by Michelle Paver. My uncle and I send each other a book we have enjoyed, every so often, and this is one of his. We’ve been doing this for years.
Your new book, The Story of The Fly and How It Could Save The World (Cheviot Publishing) was out last month. What’s it about?
It is a fun look at how humans have used flies, from Ghengis Kahn to NASA and the NHS — and of course more currently, AgriProtein
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Without question, driving up Karakoram Highway, one of the highest paved roads in the world. It used to be the Old Silk Road, and connects Pakistan to China.
A friend and I went to play polo at Gilgit, Baltistan, in Pakistan where no European had played since 1937. We played at an altitude of 4,000m with half an hour for each chukka. There were no rules, and 20,000 people watched.
If your team wins, you have to do a mating dance of the animal of your choice. I chose a pheasant. Here, look at the pictures on my laptop – pretty embarrassing, isn’t it! (A huge roar of laughter.)
Has there been a defining moment in your life?
I left General Electric and had been at BUPA for a while when I was headhunted and offered a new and big corporate job.
At the same time I had the opportunity to start a new business in SA. I came here, and that has defined the last decade for me.
What’s the best health advice anybody’s given you?
Stretching before exercising is not just for athletes.
If you had your life over, would you change anything?
(A pause) No. ( A second pause) No!
What’s something few people know about you?
That I am not at all competitive. Sure I play to win, but I have no need to win, no, not even a polo match. If you are playing a great game in sport, or a big enough game in business, winning outright doesn’t really matter. People don’t understand that you don’t need to win to be successful.
And I thought we lived in such a dog-eat-dog world?
Only the dogs eating other dogs think that way. The clever dogs are eating the food of those that are fighting. They’re the happy, content ones.
Given your outlook, I am sure there’s something you’d like to change before you die?
I’d like to see the eradication of pesticides. I also want to put the fishmeal people out of business, because they’re destroying our oceans. I’m on track to achieve both those aims.
What are your hopes?
That the world wakes up to the very real dangers we face of resource scarcity.
That civilisation makes it through the next 30 years, and a new, green way of life emerges in a more sustainable version for all humanity.
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