Spirulina harvest

Food Pacific Manufacturing Journal

Up-and-coming manufacturer is quickly moving ahead in spirulina production ~ Jonel Guittap

Spirulina comes in powder and sprinkle forms which can go right into cereal, smoothies and other foods; Spirulina tablets are also available.

DESPITE challenges in manufacturing high-quality spirulina, a Cambodian health supplements company is stepping up its efforts to guarantee the market worthiness of its product.

Global Superfoods, a spirulina farm startup, was launched by five investors from New Zealand, Canada and Cambodia. Established only last year, it currently grows and packages 100 percent pure spirulina and retails it in Cambodia and exports to New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

“The minerals that we use are food- grade and certified,” says Grant Catley, co- founder of Global Superfoods who manages the company with his business partner and wife, Megan. “We source our water from an 80-meter deep well ensuring its quality, which is really important. Tests show that our source is of drinking-water quality.”

“We source our water from an 80-meter deep well ensuring its quality, which is really important. Tests show that our source is of drinking-water quality” ~ Grant Catley Co-Founder Global Superfoods

The couple explains that spirulina will grow in any type of water because it’s a single cell organism and it will take anything you feed it. “That is why it is critical that the inputs are 100 percent pure and food-grade certified. That is how we control and know our spirulina is good.”

“I could grow spirulina from water that’s five meters underground but that’s going to be full of arsenic and other contaminants, and the spirulina will still look the same,” explains Mr Catley. “And when you analyze it, you will find those impurities. You don’t want any heavy metals in your spirulina.”

Product tests are done on a regular basis. “We send samples to Food Technology Services, an independent laboratory in Cambodia, where they conduct different testing measures for each component. We look at the protein, iron, magnesium and calcium contents and all the other nutrients that are found in our label,” says Mr Catley.

He adds that since the company can monitor the environment the spirulina grows in, it can control the spirulina to a high standard all the time. “That’s important to us because it’s a health product. The only way we feel comfortable standing behind our product is the way we are doing it.”

Biosecure farm

Global Superfoods’ farm is also biosecure, which means that it’s fully fenced so no one can just come in. Biosecurity is vital for the company and the only people that can enter the facility are the workers and invited guests.

Keeping high standards

The company has been set up following New Zealand health and safety systems. The couple are familiar with manufacturing as they used to be dairy farmers in New Zealand before relocating to Cambodia, and are working through the process in order to become HACCP- and FDA-approved. “We are currently working with Cambodia’s Ministry of Industry for our farm processing license and also in the early stages of HACCP certification,” says Mrs Catley. “Spirulina is quite a difficult product to press. The quality of the other tablets we’ve seen in the market is quite powdery and a different shade of green. The darker the shade of the tablet, the more pure it is. Some manufacturers use a colorant. Because spirulina is a natural product, its color will change slightly when temperature fluctuates. So a lot of these companies will put colorants so their tablet looks the same color all year round and that then is what we call an additive.” “We only use 0.5- 1 percent of natural silica which is sourced from Germany so it comes with all the proper food safety certificates,” adds Mrs Catley. “You will find that a lot of spirulina in the market has on average 20 percent, sometimes up to 30 percent, of fillers and binders, which bulks the tablet up. Our major differentiator is that we control the whole manufacturing and distribution process – we grow, harvest, dry, process, package under New Zealand standards and then we distribute directly to retailers and consumers.”

We only use 0.5- 1 percent of natural silica, sourced from Germany, with all of the proper food safety certificates ” ~ Megan Catley ~ Co-founder, Global Superfoods

Growing and processing spirulina

At Global Superfoods, the initial step in producing spirulina is putting a small amount of the algae in a 20-liter bucket. It then grows, gets dense and becomes 200 liters. After which they are transferred into a big tank.

At daytime the spirulina is stirred and agitated so that it goes from top to bottom. This is done because it only grows in the first two centimeters of the 15-cm. deep tank. Minerals that control the high pH of 10.4 – the optimum level – are then added aside from other minerals, such as potassium and calcium. The spirulina is fed nutrients that they human body needs.

Every other day, workers harvest from the tanks. The spirulina-rich water is poured through a fine mesh to separate the algae and then compressed to get all the water out. After which, the resultant green sludge is laid out and dried. The sprinkles can be ground into powder. The powder when mixed with 1 percent silica can then be pressed into tablets.

Currently, the company’s product line includes the Monthly Supply bottle that contains 180 tablets, a 7-day Pack with 42 tablets, and 100g reseal able packs of powder and sprinkle. Both the powder and sprinkle can be added into cereals and smoothies as well as stirred into foods.

Ideal growing conditions

As Cambodia is situated entirely within the tropics, it boasts ideal growing condition for spirulina with temperature always at 32 to 37 degrees Celsius. It’s the best condition which means spirulina can grow 365 days a year. In Myanmar it can be grown for about three months while in northern Thailand, growing period is about four months because at below 20 degrees Celsius it is too cold for the algae to flourish.

The company’s farm is located about 35 km outside of Phnom Penh in Kandal province where rainfall is low at about 1,200 mm per year as compared to other provinces such as Sihanoukville that averages 4,000 mm of rain.

“The rain doesn’t harm the spirulina, but it dilutes it,” explains Mrs Catley. “For optimum spirulina, the pH level must be  10.3 to 10.5, so when it rains it dilutes the pH resulting in the delay of harvesting.”

As Global Superfoods has a small farm at the moment, they’ve built roofs above the tanks so that when it rains it doesn’t affect the algae assuring high quality spirulina all year round.

Educating the local market

The biggest challenge facing the company in Cambodia is the lack of awareness about spirulina’s health benefits. To overcome the low product recognition, Global Superfoods uses different marketing strategies such as radio advertising, price discounts, product giveaways, out-of- home advertising using tuk tuks, product demonstrations, and social media.

“If the Cambodian Ministry of Health can get behind the promotion of health and wellness to the people it’s going to be a big plus,” says Mr Catley. “Global Superfoods believes that when the government steps up efforts to encourage healthy living among the citizens, we don’t need to convince Cambodians that our spirulina is a great product. The people themselves will make that choice of buying our product because it’s good for their health.” He adds that the government needs also to intensify its campaign for citizens to patronize Made in Cambodia-products. “The citizens need to believe that their country is capable of manufacturing world-class products – to believe in their own country and own people.”

Expanding operations to meet demand

Currently producing 90 kg per month, Global Superfoods has plans of expanding the current farm area of 240 sqm to 2,300 sqm within three years and spending US$500,000 to fund the project. “When fully built, the farm is capable of producing 46 kg of spirulina per day or five to six tons annually,” reveals Mr Catley. “The company will have more tanks, a bigger dryer, a central harvesting station, a pill press upgrade and additional manpower between 15 and 20. We’ve designed the farm to accommodate future extension that’s why our power, water and drainage systems are all ready to go when we expand.” “Our business plan is based on an 80 percent export and 20 percent local sales mix. At the moment we are at 40 percent export and 60 percent local,” says Mrs Catley. “Our company plans to export 80 percent of our products because that brings money into Cambodia and we think that it’s the best way to help progress the country.”

Global Superfoods is also working alongside another company to enter the Middle Eastern and European markets.

The couple eventually hopes that they can step back so that the company’s local staff can run the operations. The Catley’s highlight that their current personnel were rice farmers and never really had a full time job. Now they are getting a monthly salary and the money is flowing into the community. “Our workers can now afford to send their children to school. We’re seeing things like a new bicycle or a new mobile phone and for us it’s really good. And obviously, we give all our staff spirulina so they can get the health benefits as well,” the couple shares.