Mohammed Ashour, a 2009 UTM alumnus, is the co-founder and CEO of the Aspire Food Group, an agricultural company which aims to revolutionize insect farming in order to address the current global food insecurity. In fact, Ashour’s success with the Aspire Food Group was one of the reasons why he was named as one of Forbes’ annual “30 Under 30” list this year.
Ashour pursued a double major in biology and psychology at UTM. During his undergrad, he was a part of the Men’s Intramural Volleyball team (as a captain and then a coach), and also held various positions in the MSA, including being the MSA president in the 2008-2009 academic year. Ashour graduated from UTM with an Honours Bachelor of Science in 2009.
He reminiscences about the long conversations he used to have with UTM psychology professor Robert Gerlai. These discussions peaked his interest in neuroscience, leading him to pursue a Masters in that very field at McGill University.
Following his Masters, Ashour attempted to find a job in his field—but couldn’t find a relevant “science” job, despite his qualifications. He was forced to look beyond science, a move that he says “irreversibly changed [his] career trajectory.”
Ashour ended up joining the start-up Top Hat Monocle, which is today known as Top Hat, the same virtual platform that professors all over the world, including those at UTM, use to engage students in classrooms. Ashour quickly rose through the ranks of the start-up, and became the interim vice-president of sales.
But despite his increasing professional success, Ashour still wanted to return to school—specifically, medical school, which was his passion.
In 2012, Ashour left his position at Top Hat, and chose to pursue a joint MD-MBA. He was working towards both a Doctor of Medicine and a Master of Business Administration at McGill University.
It was during his further studies that Ashour came across the Hult Prize competition.
The Hult Prize is an annual initiative which acts as a start-up accelerator; it brings together students from around the world to solve a pressing issue. Winning proposals are awarded the prestigious $1 million Hult Prize, which is provided in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative. For the 2013 Hult Prize competition, former president Bill Clinton challenged participants to develop an enterprise that addressed global food insecurity.
Ashour, joined by four MBA students (Gabriel Mott, Jesse Pearlstein, Zev Thompson, and Shobhita Soor), decided to address food insecurity issues through insect farming.
Despite the misconceptions that people may have about consuming insects—or as Ashour puts it, “the ick factor”—insects are consumed on a global scale today. In fact, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, over 2 billion people, in approximately 80 percent of the countries around the globe, consume insects.
“[The] product is not insects as you usually think of [them],” says Ashour. “[There are] controlled conditions […] [it is] odourless [and there are] no insect parts [present].”
In fact, Ashour notes that food that is widely loved today was met with aversion previously, such as sushi. Misconceptions against insect consumption may exist partly because we are “socialized against” it.
“There are [several] cultures with established insect eating,” says Ashour. Examples include the consumption of ants in Mexico (through dishes such as Escamol), and grilled locusts in Thailand.
There are various benefits associated with adopting insect consumption as a part of a normal diet. For example, increased insect consumption will result in a much less dependency on livestock. Additionally, according to Ashour, insects are more resource-efficient, as less water and almost no greenhouse emissions are released during insect farming, thus reducing the overall environmental footprint. There are also strong nutritional advantages to consuming insects, as they are an important source of protein, superior to wheat and soy.
Ashour and his teammates beat all other participants in the 2013 Hult Prize competition, and were awarded the Hult Prize in order to accelerate their enterprise. This led to the birth of the Aspire Food Group in 2013.
Today, Ashour has taken a leave of absence from his joint MD-MBA program, and is continuing to further develop the Aspire Food Group as the CEO.
Currently, the Aspire Food Group has headquarters in Austin, Texas, and operates in both the U.S. and Ghana. According to Ashour, they are continuously “developing advanced techniques to farm insects, [including] crickets and palm weevils.”
In the U.S., the Aspire Food Group commercially raises crickets. Unlike Ghana, these insects are converted to powder form before sale.
In Ghana, the group commercially farms palm weevil larvae. However, this is not your typical commercial farm, as they run a program to teach approximately 500 Ghanaian rural farmers to raise their own palm weevils. Through this training, the rural farmers have a chance to use this insect farming for income generation, as any surplus will be sold to the local community.
“[We] really focus on social empowerment [and] social enterprise,” says Ashour, as he recounts the old proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Ashour encourages everyone, especially the younger generation and millennials, to consider their environmental footprint. He suggests that everyone at some point in their lives should “do an audit of the food [they] consume”, in order to understand the environmental footprint caused by a diet. To demonstrate just how large your environmental footprint can be, Ashour states that it takes a gallon, or approximately four litres of water, to produce a single almond.
However, Ashoud points out that he is not calling for an entire overhaul of everyone’s diets. He is not suggesting that people “convert to non-meat [diets]”, but simply that they “replace meat with alternative proteins”.
Additionally, Ashour advises undergraduates that “If [an] opportunity [to join] a start-up comes about, take it […] Despite failure, [an] entrepreneurial environment opens [your] eyes up to [the potential] opportunities.”
He also states that undergraduate students have very little to lose. As a husband with two young children, Ashour states that he “cannot take the same risk as [he] could six years ago in [his] undergrad”, while current students have a lot more room for mistakes.