A team of McGill University MBA students has won the $1 million Hult Prize for a project that aims to improve the availability of nutritious food to slum dwellers around the world by providing them with insect-infused flour.
Mohammed Ashour, Shobhita Soor, Jesse Pearlstein, Zev Thompson and Gabe Mott were presented with the social entrepreneurship award and $1 million in seed capital by former U.S. president Bill Clinton in New York City Monday evening at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting.
The money will help them grow Aspire Food Group, an organization that will produce nutritious insect-based food products that will be accessible year-round to some of the world’s poorest city dwellers.
“We are farming insects and we’re grinding them into a fine powder and then we’re mixing it with locally appropriate flour to create what we call power flour,” Ashour explained to CBC News.
“It is essentially flour that is fortified with protein and iron obtained from locally appropriate insects.”
Protein and iron, the students noted, are nutrients in short supply in the diets of many people in developing nations, but found in high amounts in insects. For example, they note, crickets have a higher protein content per weight than beef.
Soor said people in many of the countries they are targeting already eat insects.
“There really isn’t a ‘yuck’ factor,” she added.
The type of insect would be chosen based on local culinary preferences.
“For example, in Mexico, we’d go with the grasshopper. In Ghana, we’d go with the palm weevil.”
The insects would be mixed with the most common type of local flour, whether it be made from corn, cassava, wheat or something else.
Ashour said his team has already held taste tests in some markets. In one test, they offered people tortillas made from regular corn flour, corn flour containing 10 per cent cricket flour and corn flour containing 30 per cent cricket flour.
“Amazingly enough, we got raving reviews for the latter two… so it turns out that people either find it to be tasting neutral or even better than products that are made with traditional corn flour.”
The team hopes to use the prize money to help them reach over 20 million people living in urban slums around the world by 2018.
The Hult Prize Foundation runs an annual contest open to teams of four or five students from colleges and universities to develop ideas for social enterprises — organizations that use market-based strategies to tackle social or environmental problems.
This year’s challenge, selected by Clinton, was to tackle world hunger.
Over 10,000 students entered, and the McGill team was one of six which reached the final stage, an opportunity to pitch their idea Monday to judges that included Clinton, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus and Erathrin Cousin, CEO of the World Food Program.
The $1 million is provided by the family of Swedish billionaire Bertil Hult, who made his fortune building the education company EF Education First, which runs language schools, high school programs, educational tours, cultural exchanges, and the Hult International Business School.
The McGill team's win was more bitter than sweet for one student. Jakub Dzamba was forced to watch from a distance, via webcast, as his former allies rubbed shoulders with the former U.S. president.
Dzamba, a McGill University student who is still involved in a dispute with the five-member MBA winning team, claims he was intellectually robbed.
Dzamba says it was his slides and his presentation that were initially used when his classmates won the semifinals.
"They ended up taking credit for my work and didn't compensate me in any way," he said in an interview.
A group of McGill associate deans got involved and decided that the team should pay him $5,300 for the work he had done, but a dispute over a release statement, which he called a "gag order" put an end to the claim and it was never signed.
The 31-year-old says he first started working on the idea of using insects for food at the University of Toronto in 2009 and got into a PhD program at McGill to work specifically on developing insect farming.
In a statement, McGill vice-president Olivier Marcil said the university investigated the matter, proposed a resolution, and still hopes for a settlement.
Marcil said that in a university environment many ideas bubble up at the same time and in many cases the ideas reinforce each other.
He said McGill has verified that the Hult presentation does not include any reference to the portable cricket farm designed by Dzamba.
The winning team also issued a statement on the dispute.
"As of mid-March 2013 we ceased using any of Jakub's contributions," it said. "We provided the university with the slide-deck of the final presentation for the Hult Prize and they have confirmed it does not include any reference to Dzamba's portable cricket farm design described in the provisional patent application filed by the university.
"It is our intention to compensate Jakub for his work as a past consultant and we are happy to give him credit for this contribution, though these contributions were not a factor in our regional win and were not included in our final presentation. We applaud any initiatives whose aim it is to alleviate world hunger and help make our world a better place."With files from Canadian Press