A pungent scent reminiscent of expired yogurt hits me as I walk into Ento Industries’ office in Tuas.
In the centre of a large room, masked workers are standing over a barrel, mixing a bubbling purple liquid that looks like it belongs in a science fiction film.
The scent becomes more pronounced as I get nearer, and I remark about the “unique aroma” to my host, Mr Nathaniel Phua.
“That’s a really polite way of putting it,” he says. The barrel contains food waste that has been fermenting for a week, he adds.
Mr Phua is the founder and chief executive of Ento Industries, a Singapore-based waste management start-up upcycling Singapore’s food waste using insects called black soldier flies, which I visited on Nov 8.
The 33-year-old, previously a marketing executive for various firms including interior design and oil companies, started working at his father-in-law’s waste management company, Tiong Lam Supplies, in 2015 due to the latter’s poor health.
Mr Phua said his marketing efforts at Tiong Lam Supplies drew enquiries from organisations which wanted to process food waste beyond the company’s focus, which is waste from longer shelf-life foods such as bread and biscuits.
This led him to explore alternative methods to break down more types of food waste, and he started experimenting with using black soldier flies in late 2019, before establishing Ento Industries in June 2020.
Ento Industries collects “wet” food waste, such as fruit peels and vegetable stalks, from establishments like caterers, restaurants and hospitals. The waste is ground into smaller particles using industrial-grade machinery, fermented with beneficial microbes, and then fed to the larvae of black soldier flies, which can eat up to two times their body weight in food waste every day.
The larvae produce nutrient-dense insect frass, or excrement, which can be used as fertiliser for crop farming.
The entire process spans roughly 15 days. At around the midpoint, 5 per cent of the larvae are harvested and cultivated into black soldier flies to sustain the breeding cycle, while the remainder are dried and converted into protein-rich animal feed.
Some of Ento Industries’ clients include nurseries like Far East Flora, Ban Nee Chen and Prince’s Landscape. Its animal feed, which is suitable for both farm animals like chickens and common household pets like fishes, cats and dogs, is available at local aquariums and pet food retailers such as Rainbow Aquarium and PetCubes.
Mr Phua, who studied psychology as well communications and new media for his bachelor’s degree, said that during the early days of Ento Industries, he had to go “a little bit crazy” in his experiments to better understand how black soldier flies process food waste.
This included figuring out how best to ferment the waste mixture so that the larvae can produce usable fertiliser while being nutritious enough to be used for animal feed.
He said: “We put anything organic into the mix — things like bread, chicken intestines, and even my dog’s poop. The most memorable part is that we didn’t have the commercial equipment we have right now to handle all of it, so we used our bare hands to mix everything up before feeding it to the flies.”
Ento Industries has nine employees at its 9,000 sq ft headquarters in Tuas, where around 2 tonnes of food waste are processed every day.
It is in the midst of expanding its operations, and aims to process around 10 tonnes of food waste each day by the end of 2024.
To date, the start-up has raised roughly US$1 million (S$1.36 million) through private funding, government grants and entrepreneurship initiatives such as the DBS Foundation Social Enterprise Grant Programme.
Mr Phua said one of the biggest challenges he has faced thus far is confronting the stigma of using insects to create something of value.
He said: “In Singapore, we don’t have the habit of consuming insects, or even having insects as part of our pets’ diets.”
He has also encountered potential clients who do not understand the mission of social enterprises like Ento Industries.
“They think that just because we’re taking their food waste and creating something of value, it means that they don’t need to pay us, but we need to pay them,” he said, adding that the waste management fee charged to clients helps to cover the firm’s manpower costs.
Ento Industries plans to open a second facility in Malaysia by 2025, and is already seeking partnerships with local farms, pet shops and government agencies. It also intends to venture into Japan and Vietnam in the future.
Reflecting on his start-up journey, Mr Phua, who is married with an eight-year-old son, said his founding of Ento Industries caused conflict with his family due to the time and effort needed to run the start-up.
He said: “It takes a very high precedence over a lot of other things in your life, such as family and friends… Instead of meeting people every week, I meet them every six months.
“If I’m in the facility, I would be there till the wee hours and, by the time I get home, my family is sleeping already.”
But things have improved. Mr Phua said he has learnt to better manage his time, and support from his family has increased. His son also frequently visits the facility to help out.
“I think he’s proud of what we’re doing… I hope to pass this interest in insects and the passion of wanting to save food waste to him and his generation.”
Fun facts about Nathaniel Phua
- He likes country hits and golden oldies
- His go-to lunch meal is “cai fan”, or economy rice, because of its variety
- He de-stresses by playing tennis and doing aquatic landscaping
This story was first published at The Straits Times.