Everything you thought about environmentalism is wrong

In finding the hidden value in things most of us overlook, environmental entrepreneur Jason Drew is proving to the world that having a successful business while protecting the environment is the way of the future.

Did you know that 90 million tonnes of fish are pulled from the ocean every year and have been for the past 10 years, despite the fact that over two thirds of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted, while the other third is in decline?

Despite endless conferences, treaties and protests, the tragedy of the commons that is industrial fishing continues apace.

But the humble housefly may one day be seen as the fish’s saviour.

14 per cent of the catch of our overfished species is not for human consumption, but instead ground up into fish flakes to make meal for animal feed.

Jason Drew, an English turned South African entrepreneur believes he can put factory fishing out of business (at least for animal feed) and in the process make millions.

Drew helped start the first internet bank in France in 1999 and after selling it to Prudential in 2003, moved to South Africa to start a number of other successful businesses. As he tells it, his one obsession was making money, and once upon a time if he could "sell panda chunks in brine, he would”.

Two stress-related heart attacks changed his world view from making money to saving the environment but rather than man the barricades, Drew applied his considerable business acumen to the cause. In fishing, he saw a clear opportunity.

As Drew explains, the cost of extracting fish has risen to almost $2000 a tonne from $1000 a tonne as fleets go further and deeper in search of dwindling stocks.

When visiting a chicken farm down the road from his home in South Africa, he saw millions of flies hovering over a lake of blood behind the slaughterhouse.

Figuring that chickens naturally eat flies, why not grow flies he asked?

So Drew has become a fly rancher. Taking the waste products from his neighbour, he runs fly eggs over conveyer belts drenched in blood from the slaughterhouse, where 1 kilogram of fly eggs will turn into 370 kilograms of larvae protein in 72 hours. It’s turned into feed powder for chickens, pork and farmed fish.

His company, AgriProtein is now in the process of building larger plants in South Africa and Germany. If he can crack that $2000 a tonne price point, something he says he is close to, he can put a real dent in industrial fishing.

But Drew's endless entrepreneurial mind does not stop at fishing. He has sunk $26 million into the DNA code for sterilising insects and is entering a market he thinks will be worth billions.

He now exports 20 million mosquitoes a month to six countries. These sterile mosquitoes breed with local populations and reduce the incidence of Dengue fever, a disease that affects 50-100 million people every year. Instead of spraying local areas with harmful and expensive pesticides, which also kill many other non-threatening insects, the sterile mosquitoes can reduce a population by 80 – 85 per cent, not far off that of mainstream chemical methods.

The sterilisation approach can be applied to a range of pests, from fruit flies to cotton moths and help reduce the estimated 14 per cent crop loss from pests worldwide that underpin a pesticide industry that generates tens of billions of dollars in revenue every year.

Jason Drew says the margins on his sterilised flies are very healthy, particularly when priced against the cost of traditional pesticides. The sterilisation only works for one lifecycle of a species – 6 weeks – and can be much more targeted as most insect populations only live within 50 metres of a food source.

Sensing the threat, he says, companies like Monsanto "are trying to buy us out on the one hand, while on the other, they are trying to rubbish our research”.

That is music to the ears of Drew. He thinks that the environmental movement has for too long been ineffective because of its anti-business stance. By recognising the profit motive, Drew believes he can make money by doing the right thing. He also feels that making environmentally destructive activities uneconomic by developing disruptive technologies is a far more effective way of resolving our environmental crisis. He also believes that it is time for businesses to stop seeing good environmental stewardship as a cost.

It’s the now familiar refrain of 'doing well by doing good'. Drew's biggest pleasure is in finding the hidden value in things most of us overlook. "Where there’s muck there’s brass”, says Drew, drawing on his Yorkshire heritage.

He’s found brass in the muck of a place practically no business is willing to go – the slums of Africa. These shanty towns are a haven for disease because of their lack of proper sanitation. Something as simple as a basic toilet can make a huge difference to the quality of the water supply but few slum communities can afford to build or maintain them.

Another company of Drew’s supplies toilets to slums but with a twist. All the liquid waste is collected in tanks and (after a few months where the volatile chemicals evaporate) is sold as fertiliser to local farmers for $2.64 a litre. This liquid delivery of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium is far more useful to African farmers because the absence of rain prevents crystal fertilisers from breaking down into the soil.

"At $2.64 a litre”, Drew says "that’s more than many of my wine growing neighbours get for their product”.

Jason Drew has the irrepressible spirit of someone who believes absolutely in what he does. He was always entrepreneurial, starting a mowing business while in private school back in England. Clearly, he’s good at making money, but he has the zeal of someone who can see that the biggest money-making opportunities will come from helping the world and its citizens.

"There’s fortunes to be made in businesses that fix the future”, he says "but it has to be a billion dollar business, otherwise you’re not playing the game.”

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