It’s a long journey. South Africans must first understand cell cultivation, taste cultured meat, and then buy it - says Brett Thompson, Co-Founder, and CEO of Mzansi Meat Co., Africa’s first cultivated meat company
Braaing, the African Barbeque, is an important part of South African culture and even a matter of pride for the natives. Chilling with family, socializing with friends over long drawn evenings, waiting for the fire to heat up enough to grill the meats – that are quintessentially South African in flavors and variety is probably where the story of Mzansi Meat starts.
When in the US and Europe, plant-based and cultured meat companies started producing patties and meatballs for the rest of the world, in March 2020 Brett Thompson along with Jayson Van Der Walt founded a company with a name that is African in flavor. “Like Braai, South Africa has a unique taste profile, and when I started the company, I wanted to come from the cultural point of view and wanted a South African name,” shares CEO and founder of the first South African cultured meat company ‘Mzansi Meat’. Brett has worked in alternative protein and animal advocacy for more than a decade in South Africa and Germany. He is constantly interested in the way we eat and how we can use innovation to drive better food systems.
He adds, “When we started Mzansi Meat, we wanted to understand why people eat meat. It’s not just because it’s tasty. Some said they love to eat meat with family on Sundays, or while having beers on a Thursday after a long day at work. The word ‘Culture’ did crop up quite a number of times. The South African culture associated with meat is very crucial,” he adds.
When the co-founders registered the company, it was still a concept that belonged elsewhere. Additionally, the world went into lockdown and like every other company, the start-up suffered. “Starting the company in such an environment was challenging. But, it made us stronger and prepared us for chaos. Unlike India or even Nigeria, South Africa is fairly a smaller market. As founders, we have had a background in cultured meat and extensive experience in the food sector. But, we are non-technical. We are not scientists. Therefore, we struggled to convince investors that we are the people for the job. Then we met Ryan,” Brett relates the initial hurdles faced by the team.
Ryan Bethencourt, who believed in the relevance of cultured meat, contributed the initial funding to start Mzansi Meat.
“There will be billions of extra mouths to feed in the coming few years. Plus, we are not eating enough protein. Plant-Based meat is dealing with the challenge of too many ingredients. These factors indicate that cell cultivation of meat is inevitable. Ryan was convinced about this. And, that helped us get into the lab and make progress. We wanted to develop meat products that can be easily transformed into African cuisine.”
In the following months, Brett and the team brought in a bigger investment. Meanwhile, in one year, the lone company trying to spread the word, multiplied into a few more new companies in the alternative protein space of South Africa. These companies are buoyed by the market trends. Various studies and research agencies have revealed data that says that over 50% of South African meat-eaters are ready to try alternate meat if they understand what it is.
The journey has just begun. And the challenges are only beginning to emerge; Brett and the team are conscious of the long journey ahead and have a game plan in hand. Mzansi Meat Co. will roll out its products by next year. This will be followed by getting into the retail space and foodservice industry.
The global alternative protein ecosystem that had just three to four players internationally, today, has over 100 companies up and down the value chain. Brett says, “We are under the shadow of giants. We will leapfrog some of the hurdles they have had.”
“Considering the geography of Africa, we are somewhat isolated. The industry people happily speak about Asia, North America, but not as much about Africa or South America. We, at our end, are constantly in discussion with consumers and retail making them understand the product. We are dealing with a price-sensitive market. Cultured meat is not cost-effective yet. That is one of the pain points we are working towards solving. Consumers are tired of looking at the packaging and seeing ingredients that they do not understand, which is another area we need to address. We are working towards packaging with lesser ingredients that consumers know and understand.”
"The investor space is quite competitive. Finding talent was challenging too and there was no one who has done this work before. We had to repurpose talent,” reveals Brett. The human resource seems to be a solved problem, as the specializations in the field are available, and Mzansi Meat is on a hiring spree. What started as a team of two people is gradually growing as people from all over the world join the revolutionary company that prefers to be known as a food company rather than a tech one.
The focus is clear, Brett states – “Get the market ready for cultured meat by the time we actually begin to manufacture.”