Africa’s first cultivated meat company targets food security, land use, and subsistence farmers’ livelihoods

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South Africa’s Mzansi Meat Co. is on a mission to improve food security, all while bringing subsistence farmers’ into the formal economy, through its production of cultivated local delicacies.

When asked what prompted the move away from animal agriculture, cultivated meat producers often cite similar driving factors. Responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions, animal agriculture is a key factor in biodiversity loss, freshwater use, and pollution. It has also been associated with poor animal welfare conditions. Further, occupying 70% of agricultural land, innovators are looking at how more protein can be produced with fewer natural resources, to feed an estimated 9.8 billion mouths by 2050. For South African cultivated meat start-up Mzansi Meat Co., drivers include all this and more.

“In South Africa, what is particularly relevant is food security, and the fact that people are not eating enough protein in some areas,” explained co-founder and CEO Brett Thompson. Indeed, according to recent Unicef data, chronic malnutrition is an underlying cause for half the childhood deaths in South Africa, with one in three children stunted and 30% living in households with little or no access to a daily healthy diet.

“This is a big driver for us,” he told FoodNavigator. “We’re trying to find high quality protein that is going to meet the demand of a growing and young nation. Our population is 60 million and it’s going to get bigger, so how do we do that in a way that isn’t going to encroach on our natural habitat?

The start-up’s first cultivated meat products will come in the form of a beef burger and a South African fresh sausage known as ‘boerewors’. The common thread amongst Mzansi’s portfolio – even as it expands – is that all products can be cooked on an open flame. This aligns with the South African social custom of ‘braai’ – meaning a barbecue or grill. Boerewors translates as ‘farmer’s sausage’ in Afrikaans. “It’s made up of 70% ground meat – predominantly underutilised cuts,” explained Mzansi’s public relations officer Absie Pantshwa. “Then, we add a good percentage of about 22-25% fat.

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The specifics of the boerewors is its unique spice. Nobody will ever tell you what their family recipe is, but it’s nice and smoky,” she explained.  “Argentinians would say it’s similar to their chorizo, but it’s more beef than pork.” In the future, Mzansi hopes to expand its portfolio, still in align with the braai custom. That could mean lamb chunks, or, in a self-proclaimed ‘cheeky’ move on Mzansi’s behalf, it could mean borrowing cells from the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s prize winning Ankole cattle to produce products made from ‘the most famous and sought-after breed in all the land’.

Another way Mzansi is setting itself apart in the cultivated meat landscape is via its work with subsistence farmers – defined as those that use their small land holdings to produce enough for their local consumption. The majority (approximately 2.7 million) of South Africa’s farming population is engaged in subsistence agriculture.“We plan on working with conventional farmers,” explained Thompson. “If we want to get to scale, we will have to work with everybody.” The goal here, aside from achieving scale, is to help bring subsistence farmers into the formal economy. In this way, cellular agriculture will not be excluding its conventional counterparts.

“We believe that cellular agriculture offers the opportunity to individuals who have small cattle, but who can’t sell into slaughterhouses because of their size and the regulations,” the CEO told this publication. “We would be able to take some cells from them, and get them a new type of revenue stream that will ultimately benefit them, and benefit us, but having a local brand that we sell through the country and even abroad.”