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Fly Farm: Singapore's first insect farm can turn tonnes of food into fertiliser

There is actually a lot more buzz in this modest sheltered spot in a quiet corner of Margaret Drive than first meets the eye.

The area - around the size of a badminton court - houses rows of trays bearing what looks like mealworms to be used as food at a giant pet shop. Insects resembling houseflies swarm around in a small chamber with a protective netting.

Welcome to Singapore's first insect farm, started last year by Mr Darren Ho, 29, and Mr Ng Jia Quan, 30.

Insectta specialises in farming black soldier flies, which are bred to eat discarded food waste and produce useful by-products such as fertiliser and compost. These are then used to fertilise the vegetables at Citizen Farm, on whose grounds Insectta is situated.

At Insectta, the "mealworms" are actually black soldier fly larvae feeding on food waste.

It is easy to mistake the flies for household pests but do not underestimate their skills at efficiently recycling food waste.

Insectta started out as a backyard project by the duo, who wanted to fix the problems of food waste and food security with one solution.

Mr Ho studied natural resource management and economics in university, while Mr Ng is a former chef.

"We wanted to prove that we could create a circular economy using one insect to manage the waste management side of things to not only cut down food waste, but to also turn this waste into usable products such as compost, animal feed, fertiliser and sustainable sources of protein," said Mr Ho.

At the same time, they wanted to help Singapore become less reliant on food imports.

They found an ideal solution in the black soldier fly, an insect that practically works for free, and is found in Singapore's forested areas.

Simple insect traps are set up for a few days at several areas around Singapore. The flies will lay eggs - between 500 and 1,000 eggs per female fly - in these traps. These eggs are then transferred into trays filled with food waste.

After hatching into larvae, the flies will feast non-stop. "They eat almost anything like meat, fish, fruits, except very hard parts like bones and shells," said Mr Ho.

The larvae act as a decomposer, breaking down the food waste and returning it as compost for farming. The larvae are also harvested as a sustainable feed that is high in protein.

After two weeks of heavy gorging, the larvae turn into pupae and are put in a mating chamber where they later emerge as adult flies, which live up to another week.

During this period, they mate and lay more eggs. Their short life cycle of slightly less then six weeks make them very suitable for breeding. They also do not transmit diseases, bite or sting.

Insectta has gone from processing a mere 2kg of waste to almost 500kg daily. It uses the grubs to feed livestock and the compost for soil-based farming to grow edible herbs and flowers at Citizen Farm.

At the same time, Insectta is working with the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority and the National Environment Agency to ensure that the insects are a safe way to convert food waste into valuable resources like compost and insect protein for human consumption.

It is collaborating with Nanyang Polytechnic on food safety, Republic Polytechnic on animal feed and the National University of Singapore on improving fly breeding.

Insectta is also researching protocols and procedures for insect farming, and hopes to use Singapore as a benchmark for such farming on a global scale.

Mr Ho and Mr Ng are looking into supplying the insects as pet food and as a supplement or replacement ingredient for livestock feed. Their research also includes ways to produce food-grade products for human consumption using the larvae, such as insect flour and protein bars.