Entoview with Livin Farms

Not many of us can say that we played a significant part in the start of an idea or concept that shapes the way the world works. Even for those in the right place at the right time, such as for the web innovators of Silicon Valley in the 90s, the next leap forward is often an unexpected one. As many are now beginning to realise, global population growth and food security issues have forced us to the cusp of a new agricultural revolution – only this time, everyone sees it coming.

Katharina Unger, co-founder of Livin Farms, based in Austria, joins us to answer some questions on their latest insect farming design masterpiece, the Livin Farms HIVE, as well as keeping us up-to-date with some of their other endeavours.

Katharina Unger and Julia Kaisinger - Livin Farms
Katharina & Julia, Co-Founders of Livin Farms

EBF: Can you start by telling us a little bit about what you guys do? What are Livin Farms all about?

Katharina: It all started when I left my little home village on the border between Austria and Hungary to venture into the world as an industrial designer. I ended up in Hong Kong where I realized that most of the food there was imported and almost no one knew where it came from. That’s why I started to investigate the current food system and looked into alternatives. Insects were one of the future proteins that were very promising and perfect to create a solution for people to grow their food independently at home.

The first project and design was called “Farm432” and was a design rearing the black soldier fly larvae. This took me all around the world, for example working on insect breeding in Africa and Hawaii. After more prototyping and a Beta manufacturing trial for a research institute in Malaysia earlier this year I founded a new company, Livin Farms, dedicated only to growing edible insects. My long time friend and design partner Julia Kaisinger joined the team as a co-founder permanently and the redesign and development of the Hive followed. Now we, Livin Farms, are excited to manufacture it and carry on with our mission to bring insects into everyone’s homes!

Your current project has had huge success on Kickstarter so far, having just hit your £100,000 goal and now aiming for your $125,000 stretch goal. Tell us about the project.

We are super excited about hitting our goal and very grateful to the enthusiasm of our backers! The Livin Farms Hive is the world’s first desktop hive for edible insects. It lets you grow healthy and sustainable food in the form of insects in your home! With our beautiful and functional desktop hive for edible insects you can grow 200-500 g of protein-rich super food mealworms! This replaces about the same amount of protein that you would otherwise consume in 500g of meat, animal products or other protein foods. Feed your mealworms sustainably on vegetable scraps from your kitchen and always know 100% what you eat.

What will you do with the extra funding if you hit this next goal?

It gives us the opportunity to make the product even better. The more we raise and the more Hives people are getting, the more cost and time-efficiently we can manufacture the hardware. It will also allow us to do more elaborate testing and improve its functionality.

We will also give Hives to two non-profit organizations, Little Herds in  Austin and Speiseplan in Vienna, for educational purposes.  Also, backers who convince their friends to pledge at least 50 USD (collectively) will receive an extra food sample as a reward!

Mealworm Creations
Mealworm Creations

There have unfortunately been quite a few edible insect companies fail to hit their crowdfunding goals over the last year or so. Other than your obviously awesome idea, what do you think the recipe is for a successful crowdfunding campaign?

Our Hive finds itself in an interesting spot: where biology, design and technology meets. Brought into the hands of people, it makes them feel more comfortable with adopting insects as a food and empowers them to grow highly nutritious food in their home. In this way, they know exactly what´s inside and eat healthily and sustainably. This is where we as a team get most excited about.
Most of our backers seem to believe in the same vision. Building a community is hard and we put a lot of effort into doing lots of public events but also lots of Skype calls and customer discovery before we even started the campaign. We were lucky, because we had built a community already of people interested in the first design, Farm432. We really tried to find out what moves the Farm432 fans and makes them want to experience this product.
In preparing the campaign, it is important to be very clear what the product is and what it does. Good design is crucial to attracting people to even consider it.

You know we’re also into raising mealworms and we’ve found that optimising the farming system can be a really tricky process. What did you find to be the trickiest part of the design process and how did you get round it?

The trickiest part is surely to make the Hive very functional and easy to use for humans while being economic and good as a living space for the mealworms too! There is no other way to solve it than doing lots and lots of prototyping and testing!

Livin Farms Hive
The Livin Farms Hive

And what’s been the most rewarding part of the whole process?

To see and hear about the excitement of our backers and other people whom we tell about the project! It makes our heart beats faster to hear that people are becoming advocates of the Hive and tell so many others about it 🙂 There is a lot of genuine interest and we are amazed by the enthusiasm and also the good ideas that people in our backer community come up with!

What about public perception of the idea and of entomophagy in general? How have people you’ve met reacted so far?

Overall, very positively! There is an ick factor to overcome with many, but very often it is solved after the first bite and seeing others doing it too! Now there is another challenge of making people eat it on a daily basis, something that we aim to achieve with the Hive!

You’ve also been doing some work in Africa. Have responses from people there been any different from those of Westerners?

Insects are eaten in Africa, however in Uganda, where we worked, it is mainly bush crickets, locusts and ants. So people still have to overcome prejudices in order to eat different species. It is comparable to certain types of meat that are preferred or regarded as not good as a food in different cultures.

Livin Farms in Africa
Working in Africa on a low tech insect farm prototype

For example, in certain cultures lamb is eaten over pork or beef while as in Central Europe we do not have a particular taste for it. The same happens with different types of edible insects in different parts of the world. Domestication of edible insects is therefore an interesting field: we need to find a cultural balance and find out which insects work for rearing in masses and which are actually adopted by the people as a food source.

What’s your hope for the Hive over the next couple of years?

The Hive is meant as a farm that, over the next year, hopefully becomes more and more normal to have in your home. We hope that many more people, also after our campaign has ended, will start farming insects as a food in their homes and kickstart this new food culture. We will help with a platform, recipes and advocacy. There is certainly a big educational value in the farm and our befriended non-profits will go into schools with it. Our kids will have a different opinion on edible insects already for sure.

So you’ve done black soldier flies, and now mealworms. Are there any more insects you plan to farm?

We are excited about exploring other species. For now however, mealworms are our main focus and we are still running our black soldier fly farms too.

Livin Farms Hive
Let's hope this is more commonplace in the future!

What would you say is next for Livin Farms?

We are planning an event on the 7th of January in Vienna. It will be the final party to celebrate our Kickstarter! We will have a chef cooking with it and the party is co-hosted by Alexandra Palla, an Austrian food blogger. We will also have a MicroFoodsTM sample lottery!

After the end of the campaign, our year will be spent making the best product possible, delivering our product on time, and building a great online resource platform for edible insect culture 🙂

Find out more about Livin Farms here, or follow them on Twitter.

Their Kickstarter campaign can be found here.