‘Sustainability startups need to balance purpose and profitability’: agripreneur Willie Ng

Founder and executive director of Global Cerah, Willie Ng tells Eco-Business how his start-up is helping to mitigate the food cost crisis in Malaysia by turning agricultural waste into alternative protein for animal feed, and how his passion for finding solutions keeps him going.

Willie Ng portrait A-list
Willie Ng, founder and executive director of Global Cerah. Image: Eco-Business

In 2018, Willie Ng quit his eight-year corporate career, which saw him work for major multinational accounting firms such as KPMG and PwC, to venture into social entrepreneurship.

What motivated him to take the plunge was when he observed the rampant agricultural waste in the Malaysian state of Sabah while conducting a community project.

“Most of the local community in Sabah are involved in farming but they don’t have knowledge, finances, resources or guidance [to manage waste sustainably],” said Ng, who is a certified management accountant and holds a master’s degree in accounting from the Australian National University. ”They simply throw away [their agricultural waste] or put it in the landfill. They don’t know the environmental impact. We wanted to source a solution to help them manage their waste.”

Inspired to solve the waste problem, the Sabah-born Ng established Global Cerah, an agri-tech start-up focused on turning agricultural waste into an alternative protein source, in 2021. It was Ng’s ingenuity that earned him a place on the 2022 Eco-Business A-List, an annual search for the most impactful sustainability professionals in Asia Pacific.

Ng’s company, headquartered in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, collects agricultural waste such as rotten and leftover fruits, vegetables or crops from farmers and plantation owners. The waste is then processed through an automated treatment system that removes acidic elements, turning it into animal feed meals and pet food.

The processed agricultural waste is also used to breed black soldier fly (BSF) larvae, which is then harvested, grounded and used as plant fertilisers and to feed animals.

Global Cereal waste processing system

Global Cerah turns agricultural waste into two main products: animal feed meals used to feed livestock and dried larvae. Black solider fly larvae feeds on waste and the larvae is harvested after 14 days. The larvae is then pulverised and sold as feed meal or plant fertiliser. Image: Willie Ng

“Black soldier fly larvae is the gold standard in the industry, because they have the highest protein content,” said Ng. “[Our] Overseas customers in Europe and United States really care about the nutrition content of the feed meal and larvae. We have a customer that sets a requirement of 65 per cent protein in the larvae. Due to our technology we can maintain this consistency.”

Feed meals used for livestock and fertilisers produced by Global Cerah are sold to corporate clients, farmers and plantation owners, thus helping develop a circular economy. Global Cerah currently serves around 400 farmers and plantation owners and 50 corporate clients. Besides catering for the Malaysian, Indonesian and the Philippine markets, their customers also from Japan, China, the European Union and the US. 

Dried black soldier fly larvae

Dried black soldier fly (BSF) larvae produced by Global Cerah and sold as fertliser and animal feed. BSF larvae is used because of its high protein content. Image: Willie Ng

To encourage farmers to continue to recycle their agricultural waste, Global Cerah subsidises the cost of feed meal and fertilisers sold to parties that passed their waste them.

From collecting less than five tonnes of waste when it first started in 2021, the company now collects around 100 tonnes of waste per month, with most of it coming from its site in Davao in the Phillipines. Global Cerah also has waste collection and treatment sites in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah and Makassar, Indonesia.

Each month, Global Cerah produces 70 tonnes of animal feed and 20 tonnes of dried larvae.

“We have also managed to reduce the usage of land as a waste dumping site by 20 per cent,” said Ng.

Through offering subsidies and producing feed meal locally, Ng hopes to stem the rising prices of food and reduce the cost burden on farmers. According to Ng, the food price increases over the past two years in Malaysia are caused in part by the rising price of feed meal and fertilizers which are mostly sourced from overseas.

“Malaysia is reliant on imported feed meal and fertilisers. That is why, besides waste management, we are looking at producing alternative proteins [that act as feed meal] locally,” said Ng.

In this interview with Eco-Business, Ng talks about the challenges he faces in growing his startup, what he thinks are the shortcomings in Malaysia’s agri-food industry and his aspirations for the future.

What is the most important thing that you have done this past year?

To find the balance between profitability and purpose in order to sustain our solution for the long term. I think this is very important, especially for my business model where we are providing a service for the environment and the local community, helping them to solve their waste disposal issues.

What is the hardest part of your job?

It is to change the status quo and the common practices in the [agrifood] industry. This is related to how we educate our target audience which are the farmers and plantation owners.

Sustainability leaders should ask: how can I find the balance between purpose and profitability, and how can I manage stakeholder interests? 

What is the one thing that inspires you to keep going?

The passion to introduce long term solutions that can enhance the biodiversity of our environment and food security. Without passion and commitment, it is not easy to carry on. You won’t get much support because not many people understand what you are doing and how it benefits them.

Where are the gaps in waste management in the agri-food industry in Malaysia?

The first gap is the common practice of dumping waste in landfill or burning it. This has become a norm in the industry. People talk a lot [about environmental impact] but they don’t take much action. I think it is because it is much easier and cheaper for them to dump or burn their waste.

The second gap is a lack of technical skills or experience [in waste management methods] amongst individual farmers or plantation owners. It is not a priority for them, as they have other things to care about. That is why we offer them our solutions.

The third gap is [a lack of] regulations for agriculture waste management. Without regulations, people will not follow good waste management practices because it is not a requirement. In Japan, if you do not dispose of your waste in an environmentally friendly way, you can get heavily penalised or have your business license cancelled.

What are some of the targets you are hoping to reach?

Waste treatment system

Wille Ng standing in front of Global Cerah’s waste treament system in Malaysia. The company also has a waste treatment system in the Philippines. Image: Willie Ng

Within the next three years, we want to treat up to 500 tonnes of waste a month and produce up to 450 tonnes of feed meal a month. We also want to reduce the land used as waste dumping sites by 50 per cent, as well as increase our number of individual farmer clients and corporate clients to 1000 and 150 respectively. We also hope to expand our services to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

What is the one big question sustainability leaders should be asking this year?

Sustainability leaders should ask: how can I find the balance between purpose and profitability, and how can I manage stakeholder interest? This is important to change the current landscape. I have a lot of peers involved in sustainability [business], but they might fail within three years if they do not know how to scale up.  Maybe they care too much about the “purpose” aspect. When you can sustain your business, only then can you create more impact in the long term.

What are some of your biggest achievements in 2022?

Global Cerah had positive cash flow and we doubled our revenue. Also, we not only achieved but went beyond all our waste management goals. We were also fortunate to be selected to join business accelerator programmes, such as from MaGIC (Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre), where we are able to learn from industry players, mentors and peers. We also collaborated with local communities and the Malaysian ministry of science and technology (MOSTI) which can help build up or impact.

If you could start your career all over again, what would you do differently?

I wouldn’t do anything differently. I would go down the same path, which was to start as a corporate person. You need to start from the corporate world, build up your experience and apply what you learned from it. My experiences in the corporate world helped me to raise funds and create strategies.

Why will you never be replaced by artificial intelligence?

In the agri-food industry, the farmers and plantation owners need a human touch to convince them to embrace new solutions. Can AI convince people? No. Social entrepreneurs cannot be replaced by AI.

Willie Ng was one of 10 sustainability leaders selected for the Eco-Business A-List 2022. Read our stories on other A-List winners here. 


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