Bex de Prospo went from running music venues to spruiking ants and locusts to the country’s best restaurants. Now, after three years of trying to make a difference, she explains why Christchurch startup Anteater is shutting its doors.
As we stood, evicted, on the side of a remote road in Cambodia, watching our tuk tuk inch away on a flat tyre for an indeterminate amount of time, my business partner started to look increasingly red and uncharacteristically worried.
“I probably shouldn’t have eaten that,” Peter said in a rushed falsetto; his shirt suddenly soaked through with sweat.
“Which?” I asked, trying to affect calm in my voice. “The scorpions, or the tarantulas?”
“No, those were all good, but I think I’m having a reaction to the bee larvae. Does my face look swollen?” His breath quickened and shallowed. “I feel like my eyes are swelling shut.”
And I thought to myself, for not nearly the first time: ‘How the hell did I end up here?’
I had been running music and theatre venues for about a decade when I started to get frustrated with my job, endured a horrific breakup (complete with obligatory, tragic haircut), and somehow ended up in business school. Before I knew it, some cute boy at a business competition was selling me the idea of bugs as food. Peter’s elevator pitch was that he wanted to curb climate change by promoting edible insects as an environmentally sustainable alternative to conventional meat products.
And I thought to myself, for not nearly the last time: ‘This is a crazy person.’
But when he approached me earnestly with his million-dollar smile and said that he needed me on his team, Peter secured his very first customer. And, from there, things got pretty weird.
The next day, we sort of accidentally made a sale to the best restaurant in New Zealand. For something we had never seen and had no idea how to get. Suddenly, we were scrambling to fill an order for what later became known as our Wild Harvested NZ Lemongrass Ants. An ingredient that had never been produced, sold, or legislated before. Anywhere. And overnight, literally, Anteater was born.
I quickly discovered that the edible insect industry was already booming overseas (who knew?!), almost exclusively in the form of pulverised insect powders. The consumer advice around the use of these supplement powders is pretty poor, as I learned… viscerally… by way of a very muddy pan of fishmeal-flavoured brownies. That harrowing baking experience, followed by our childishly proud presentation of the wrong species of ants (a chef’s rather colourful description of their taste: “like fiery assholes”) led us to two critical conclusions:
- We would not hide insects in processed powders; rather showcase them as premium ingredients for consumers to see, experience and enjoy.
- We would sell exclusively to New Zealand’s top food producers and our line would consist solely of ingredients which they, and we, truly believed could compete on taste.
The model made sense – sell only the most delicious raw products, get the best chefs in the country on board, let the mainstream follow. And, for nearly three years, it worked.
We managed to get Anteater products onto the menus of nearly all of Cuisine magazine’s three-hat restaurants, while also launching high-profile collaborations with organisations ranging from Te Papa to TEDx to Garage Project. When we were welcomed into the internationally competitive entrepreneurial community of Edmund Hillary Fellows, I started to actually believe we could create real global impact with our little Christchurch bug business.
But the fear was always there that the New Zealand mainstream wasn’t ready. And that, even if it was, we couldn’t afford to scale Anteater enough to get to the next phase. A pinch of ants in a fine-dining restaurant or a few flash-fried locusts on a skewer, no matter how delicious, are never going to be a substitute for beef or lamb.
We realised, too late, that if we were ever going to make an impact (and a living…), we needed to expand. Fast. We refocused all our energy on growth. Months working with some major players on a funding bid for a huhu grub farm. Tireless efforts to get our existing products certified for export.
But at the last hurdle, the farming bid was rejected. And, after a relentless multi-agency runaround, my export queries landed firmly back on the same desk where they had started nearly a year earlier. A dead end.
It was time to wind the business down.
I’ve recently started a new job as the manager of one of New Zealand’s premier music venues and Peter is putting his skills to work in a marine biology role in the North Island. I’m trying my hand at intrapreneurship these days, championing a sustainability policy for my company that I hope can make some real impact.
Maybe in five years, New Zealand will be ready for an edible insect revolution and we’ll have delicious bug burgers on our supermarket shelves. Or maybe lab-grown meats and plant-based proteins will take off, and edible insects will never be anything more than a small niche. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from Anteater was the concept of relentless incrementalism. We never wanted consumers to feel guilty about their existing food choices or pressured to try our products. We never suggested that anyone become vegan, or even vegetarian. We simply encouraged them to be conscious consumers; to imagine what could happen if a lot of regular people made some small changes in their lives to make the world a little better for all of us. Sure, that might be a bug burger instead of a beef burger, but it could also be buying a multi-use product instead of a disposable one, or composting your food waste instead of throwing it in the bin.
The point, I eventually realised, is to just do something.
Oh, and if someone ever offers you live bee larvae, for God’s sake: Just. Say. No.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.