Mzansi Meat as global food technology with African roots

Mzansi meat debuted as Africa’s first meat farming company in 2020.

Co-founders Brett Thompson and Tasneem Karodia share an ambition to create high-quality, great-tasting meat without killing or harming animals. Thompson, who is also the CEO of Mzansi, runs a non-profit organization called Trust Institute that advocates the interests of animals; he is also a spokesperson Meatless Monday South Africa. Chief Operating Officer Korodia shares his desire to transform Africa’s food systems, describing himself as a sustainability-driven individual.

Earlier this year, Mzansi Meat revealed that it had successfully grown its own the first beef burger after two years of research. The startup now aims to become a global food technology company African roots.

Thompson (BT) and Corodia (TK) recently spoke with AFN about how they built the company and the team and share their thoughts on what can help grow meat in Africa industry.

AFN: If you weren’t creating Mzansi Meat, what would you be doing?

BT: I founded the non-profit organization Credence Institute about a year before I founded Mzansi Meat. It is a think tank dedicated to animal welfare work and policy. We then launched a program called Animal Advocacy Africa, which helps raise about a million dollars for animal advocacy organizations in Africa, mainly outside of South Africa. So I think if I wasn’t creating Mzansi, I would be spending more time at my non-profit.

AFN: What prompted you to switch from that to cultured meat?

BT: I have worked in retail and food marketing for the past 10 years. So I actually came from a background that was more on the profit side of things. Fortunately, my previous roles allowed me to do a lot of animal welfare work through campaigns to reduce meat consumption across the country. So I went from business to non-profit. Then I did an incubator program that was based in London [Covid-19-related] lockdown, which was about how to start a charity from a highly effective altruistic mindset.

I used a lot of that knowledge to build the company. So I think it was very easy to go from working for someone in a company to starting my own non-profit, which led to a for-profit.

AFN: What is your experience of building a biotech team?

BT: Neither I nor Tasnim were technical; we come from business. So at the beginning it was quite difficult to attract people in science who wanted to be involved in an early stage startup.

In South Africa, we were the first company [apply biotech to food], so we had no advantage. There was no industry or other people in biotech, and we weren’t really connected to the biotech space. It was a bit difficult, but there are a lot of talented scientists here in South Africa, so we were very lucky there.

Now we are moving to a more engineering type and there are a lot of quality engineers in South Africa.

TK: Brett and I are the only ones involved in the business. The rest of the team is focused on research and development. For example, Wade, our director of research and development, has twenty years of experience in commercial biotechnology. A lot of his attention was on the bioprocessing side. He built previous companies, he built bioreactors that are very important to what we use.

We also have Kyle, who actually has a marine biology background, but he’s spent quite a few years doing tissue culture and has worked in the COVID space for a while.

Then we have Peter, who is a biotechnologist, but a lot of his expertise is actually in the experimental design that we use to develop media.

We are building a team with specialization in the various levels required for meat cultivation.

AFN: What do you like about your Mzansi Meat team?

TK: They work with incredible uncertainty like scientists, which must be really stressful. I was very inspired by their ability to make many things work very quickly without them [many] resources.

BT: I actually started a small marketing agency four years ago before I got into any of this, and I worked with a lot of creatives. Creative people are great people to work with, a talent I also respect.

The dedication of creators to their art and how they use their techniques is something very similar and interesting that I have seen in scientists and people on the more technical side of the world. They don’t stray too far from their craft in terms of the scientific method or whatever, whereas when you’re in business you want to take shortcuts. Scientists have found a very good way to say you can’t.

That’s fine, but we took the time to work on a symbiotic relationship. Now, the science and business teams work very hard together and push each other in the right way. So that’s what I’ve really learned to respect and love—a strong word, but something.

AFN: What excites you most about the progress of Mzansi Meat?

TK: One of the most important moments was when we were able to demonstrate the prototype. Until then, it was very difficult to talk to people about anything [we were] do when [there wasn’t] something tangible to show. It was just amazing for me to see what we’ve been working on for the last 18 months leading up to this and to be able to demonstrate that it actually exists and that it’s not just a dream.

And it was amazing to taste it. Eating meat for the first time in 15 years was pretty amazing.

BT: I remember when we started and Tasnim was in another city and it was just an idea. The launch was something I really enjoyed. I’m also excited about the future spaces we can fill with something that offers value and working with people who are excited about remaking the food system.

AFN: How do consumers in South Africa generally feel about cultured meat now?

BT: We need to do a lot of education as a company. Being the first to do this gave us a really exciting opportunity to shape the narrative and really understand the cultural components of South Africa and the strong commitment to meat.

I think we’re both very encouraged by the opportunity and the conversations we’re having consumersretailers and caterers, restaurants, quick service restaurants, large restaurants, small restaurants and chefs.

These are the people who really influence what we eat because they make our food. There is [also] there is a lot of excitement and a lot of push from the many restaurant chains in South Africa to bring cultured meat to the markets.

AFN: Can the South African government play a role in the development of this industry?

TK: One thing we have benefited from is that the lab we work in is a public-private partnership. It was the move to a plug-and-play lab space that went a long way in getting us up and running.

In terms of other government support, there are other regions in the world that have more grants for this industry.

One problem with grant funding [in South Africa] it’s that it’s quite hard to get and sometimes it takes a while.

We would like entrepreneurs to have the opportunity to lighten the burden of spending so much time. Sometimes it’s easier to get financing from private equity, venture capital, or other investors.

AFN: Where else to find support for startups and entrepreneurs?

TK: We would like to see more space-related funding [and] access to more funding.

Investors see Africa as something they can’t invest in, and I think that’s one of the things we need to have a bigger conversation about. We can do great things with investment.

BT: I would just add that there is a bit of market failure, but so is the government. There is a perception that there is no infrastructure in Africa, but there is, and people are very excited to invest in industries like fintech.

I think there is work to be done on the corporate side, whether it’s from Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa or Kenya, where the leaders in the space, particularly when it comes to venture capital, are setting the precedent and making the first investments . They should have a greater appetite for risk and will benefit in the long run.

There is also work to be done to overcome this hurdle, reduce the risk to infrastructure and industry here in South Africa and possibly other parts of the continent, and simply gain investor confidence. There is a lot of money flowing into Africa and its venture capital space, but it is going into very specific areas.

AFN: Where do you want to be in the next five years?

TK: I want South African consumers to be able to walk into a grocery store and pick up farmed meat. Same taste, great price. This is my goal.

BT: I repeat it. I think it’s an opportunity for me to show that to people. When it becomes available at a certain price, people don’t have to make a decision. They will choose what tastes good and is grown.

At a company level, we want to be a global food technology company, operating in South Africa and proud to do so, but pushing the boundaries of food technology around the world.

In 18 months we have demonstrated what we can do with little money. I think five years from now it will be incredible what we have achieved. This company has great potential to showcase what the continent can do and inspire others to do the same. Mzansi Meat as global food technology with African roots

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