Origin Story Interview w/ Shobhita Soor, Legendary Foods

Origin Story Interview w/ Shobhita Soor, Legendary Foods

Brighter Future

 / 

Apr 12, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #AlternativeProtein #InsectAgriculture #FoodTech #Nutrition #EnvironmentalResponsibility

Brighter Future

We’re here with Shobhita Soor, founder and CEO of Legendary Foods, a company based in Ghana dedicated to providing alternative protein sources for West Africa.

Thank you so much for joining us. Do you think you could tell us a bit about yourself and your business?

My name is Shobhita Soor, and I’m the CEO and founder of Legendary Foods, a food tech/alternative protein company on a mission to deliver the nutrition of meat at the price point and the sustainability of plants with insect agriculture. We’ve built the technology to farm a species called palm weevil at scale— and we produce, process, market, and sell palm weevil-based products.

A lot of progress is being made in insect agriculture these days. Do you think you could share something about your roots, or your path, before you got started with Legendary Foods?

I grew up in Montreal, Canada, in an Indian immigrant family. I suppose you could say I inherited a lot of hustle culture and a strong focus on education. This last part may have been to my parents' regret in the long term— I eventually received four university degrees.

I started with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, which I loved— but I wanted to explore other areas, so I applied to law school before I’d even finished. Law school taught me I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but the reason was that I felt lawmaking in response to societal problems was not so effective or fast as the response of a business could be. I always felt like I wanted to work with people and have that exchange of energy with them, too, which didn’t suit long hours spent studying and reading.

I became acquainted with the world of business and social entrepreneurship while studying law, and was ultimately recruited by colleagues to participate in something called The Hult Prize. And so began my journey into entrepreneurship.

That’s quite a path. What led you to create Legendary Foods?

The Hult Prize is a large crowdsourcing platform that challenges business students to develop something that addresses a serious global problem. The theme during the year my teammates and I participated was food insecurity. We became fascinated with the idea that many people in the world met their protein needs with insects, and we wanted to try to build something in this area— but we found that major issues existed in the global supply chain. Our goal then became to create a more efficient and sustainable way to produce and distribute insects as food.

The issue was that the supply chain was often fragmented, and sometimes the food itself was unsafe, so we thought: why not just fix the supply chain and farm more desirable insects? And so was born my first startup, Aspire Food Group, which is still thriving today as the world leader in cricket production. We actually just launched a facility in London, Ontario, that produces 9,000 tonnes of crickets a year. That’s a lot of crickets.

In my journey with Aspire, we looked at parallel markets, which brought me to West Africa, where people have a history of eating various types of insects. One of these is the larvae of the palm weevil.

I found that the larvae could be farmed cost-effectively, and it seemed like we really had a chance to do some good by building a new value chain. When you look at protein consumption and protein production in this region of the world, most of the protein is either imported or dependent on an imported input; the availability and price can fluctuate wildly due to changes in foreign exchange rates. Of course, that’s a problem when you want to keep the maximum number of people healthy, so I saw a giant opportunity to change the situation and improve local protein availability. That led me to spin off from Aspire Food Group and start Legendary Foods.

Are you doing this alone, or do you have some support?

I am the only founder of Legendary Foods, but I now have a team of over 60 people. I have a committed leadership team, and I am dedicated to what we do on the sales and operation sides.

Who would you say you do your work for? Who do you wish to speak to directly?

I think the crux of what drives me at Legendary Foods is the ability to create a business that is a manifestation of something innovative that also contributes to increased economic justice. I also appreciate that it is financially exciting.

At the same time, this is an example of us being able to redefine what foreign investment looks like in this part of the world. A lot of foreign investment here is really centred around extractive industries. Building an innovative business and finding resources to build a business here (as well as doing something that’s never been done before) requires an unusually long-term perspective. It allows me to speak to other entrepreneurs, to speak to other companies that are working in food production, and to share that it’s possible to create something different in this part of the world— something that has many benefits, especially the development of new value chains.

Just by being here in West Africa, and having our production and processing system here, we work with a lot of smallholder farmers, buying inputs from them, and a lot of small-to-midsize enterprises (SMEs) to whom we sell our product. This is a great job-creation opportunity. Meanwhile, on the environmental side, we make a form of protein not only more nutritional than its counterparts— like beef, for example— but one whose production also emits much less greenhouse gas and is less resource-intensive, using drastically less water, land and feed.

So I would say that a lot of what we're trying to do is prove that this type of model works for attracting other foreign investment in this sector, because there's certainly a huge opportunity when it comes to agri-processing and food production here to serve both local and global markets.

What is most fulfilling to you in your work?

The most fulfilling thing in my work is when the company is growing and we are delivering on our mission to provide accessible and nutritious forms of protein products. Again, it’s the result of team effort; it’s most fulfilling for me because it doesn't just make me happy, but allows me to witness other people feeling happiness, joy, and pride in their work. And they’re also feeling pride in our mission, which is really to bring this very ancient and, in the modern world, novel protein source to market.

When did you decide to do something completely different with your life?

I somehow always knew that I needed my life's work to create a positive impact and that I didn't want a traditional job. I knew I wanted to live a very integrated and holistic life. I've also always been a bit of a contrarian, and it’s been such a constant in my life that my parents pushed me fairly hard to go to law school. They knew I was good at arguing.

I have a lifelong interest in underdog stories. Who doesn’t love someone winning against the odds? We’re very much acting out an underdog story today: we have this resource of insects people have completely discarded as pests, and we're saying, “No, this can solve one of our greatest challenges right now. We can use this to meet human protein needs.”

So when I started to think about my career, I wanted something that integrated as many aspects of myself as I could fit. It was a hugely welcome invitation and a turning point in my life when my colleague asked me to participate in that social entrepreneurship prize, the Hult Prize. Being introduced to social entrepreneurship like this got me thinking that maybe this career path would resonate most with my values, desires, and dreams as a human. And the fact that the project required so much science and technology was unexpectedly satisfying.

I like to sit with my sales team and make forecasts, discussing numbers and strategies. I also love thinking about how we approach insect farming and mating. These are things I never thought about before.

So I think it’s always been a sort of destiny that I would do something different. Some parts of the job always made sense for who I was, from early in my life; but some other parts only entered my attention as being deeply satisfying once I got into them and started working on them.

With Legendary Foods itself, were there any directions you took differently than planned? Or were you surprised by where they took you?

When I started the company, I didn’t think we would take the product perspective or sales strategy we ended up taking. We’re now farming palm weevil larvae as a whole protein source, which we then sell, in part, as a meat substitute— while some of the output is reserved for value-added products.

These things do well on the market, and they’re shelf stable, which is important in a country that does not always have access to refrigerators. They're also a great way to introduce new customers to our product because we have younger urban buyers who didn't grow up eating these more traditional (or rural, you could say) foods.

Having an arm of our company dedicated to processing was not something I originally planned for, but it was a way that we had to pivot to meet consumer demand.

What life experience or experiences in the past gave you the perspective and the confidence to come up with a business that runs so successfully today?

My previous startup, Aspire Food Group, was instrumental in my understanding of the commercialisation of insects: insect agriculture, insect processing, and their nutritional yield. I learned a huge amount there. I also got a handle on how sales, marketing and product development could work, which was probably one of the most valuable experiences I had, granting me the perspective and confidence I needed to spin something off and try to do something as crazy as building a commercial insect farming operation on a different continent.

I think part of being an innovative entrepreneur is knowing you don't always have the answers. As a result, even for me, I sometimes need more confidence. And it's important to be honest about that. Confidence is not a permanent thing.

Sometimes certain things happen, and I don't know how we're going to respond, or I don't know what we're going to do, or I'm not sure if our playbook will pan out. But part of entrepreneurship and innovative entrepreneurship is being able to say you don’t know 100%. So I use the data points available to me, and my experience, to make the best decision I can.

At the same time, I also care enough about the mission I'm trying to achieve and the world I'm trying to create because it's worth it. And having that approach can give you the grace to take certain risks and make certain decisions even with imperfect information or an imperfect confidence level.

That’s a great segue: what future are you hoping to help create with your work?

I want to help create a future that is more environmentally, economically, and socially responsible. This means building more opportunities for people in this part of the world, whether through entrepreneurship opportunities or job opportunities. That also manifests itself in terms of us creating a very local but scalable protein source that can become a great source of nutrition for people both locally and globally. I want protein production to become more harmonious with the environment than traditional livestock.

In this future world, more people would have access to equal opportunities and more people would have access to high-quality nutrition. I believe that we're only really beginning to understand how important nutrition is for cognitive outcomes, economic life outcomes, and productivity outcomes. I would like a future in which we're hopefully kinder to our environment for the sake of future generations as well.

What were your biggest challenges or mistakes that you've learned from?

One of the biggest mistakes I made was not hiring a leadership team earlier, specifically people who had done exactly what I was looking to do, but maybe with a different product and a different sector or something like that. So I learned my lesson, and now I spend a lot of my time hiring and looking out for the best talent and creating connections for the next round and the human capital. We'll need them— and, anyway, that’s often a pretty good way to recruit.

Have you ever had big “Aha!” moments or epiphanies that were crucial in your journey?

Understanding how to bridge the gap between strategy and point of view was an important development. Depending on your business type, there are certain things you should do when starting the process of raising external capital. It's like a journey you take: you end up understanding that investors look at your business differently than you do.

In my fundraising process, there were moments where I revered the person sitting on the other side of the Zoom call with a lot of experience in a certain field. These people can give you extremely valuable advice, and share their insights about the business or the directions you should take it.

I've had conversations with investors that have led me to understand certain strategies, plays, and metrics that investors look out for. These interactions really brought home to me an obvious-enough conclusion: that the greatest difference we could make was tied to the potential our product had for improving the nutrition of whole groups of people. We needed a product with the highest possible nutritional quality, and it needed to be as widespread as possible.

My “Aha!” moment came when I realised we could go beyond selling directly to consumers— and that we needed to sell to other businesses. So we began to provide the protein as an ingredient in products from other companies. Where the larvae were added to existing products, those products, which previously had no protein, zinc, B vitamins, and other nutrients, now had them— thanks to our ingredients. We had a huge opportunity to grow as an ingredient business.

It’s brilliant, really— one idea which comes to mind is that people who might be on the fence about your product could be swayed by finding themselves enjoying other foods which had incorporated it.

Would you say there were any books that have inspired you on your journey?

Ben Horowitz wrote a book called The Hard Thing About Hard Things that was basically like free therapy to me. It gave me so much grace, self-forgiveness, and acceptance. I’ve read other books on strategy and the like, but the books that have impacted me most are those that gave me a very intimate understanding of the thoughts going on in the heads of very successful business people or entrepreneurs.

These books normalised the scenarios and situations I found myself in as an entrepreneur and made me feel like a given problem was not the end, but just a waypoint on the entrepreneur or business person’s journey.

I thought it was amazing that these successful people I was reading about had similar thoughts to mine, that were as vulnerable as being horrified about how badly meetings had gone with important stakeholders, and that kind of thing. I didn’t feel so alone: clearly, there were a lot of doubts in many entrepreneurial minds.

It’s great that they helped you so much. Have you had to make any great sacrifices or compromises to get where you are today?

Well, I uprooted my life from North America and moved to a city called Kumasi in Ghana— that’s probably one of the biggest sacrifices I’ve made. Kumasi is not Ghana’s capital, so it isn’t yet a metropolitan city, but it’s getting there.

I no longer have close access to family and friends and my support system and network, and networking is so important in building a business. I had to build a new network from scratch here.

But I also believe that familiarity breeds comfort in terms of how things are done, how to get things done, how to communicate with people, how to negotiate, and how to express emotions in a way that they’re understood. For example, in the beginning, when I became frustrated with how long some things were taking, I was met with people who simply didn’t understand why I was getting upset about that. So there was also the sacrifice of not being understood.

In day-to-day life, the most significant sacrifice is compromising who you are to navigate a culture that is different from what you grew up in to accomplish what you need to. There are, of course, many other sacrifices.

How is this role for you as a young female leader in your environment? Is it different in Africa or Canada?

As a young female immigrant and business leader, there are a lot of people who want to put you in a box. You know, will you fall into the nurturing kind of role, like the person working for a non-profit? Are you going to be smiley all the time? This is something that must be handled carefully, and it’s something I do think about.

For example, when you have to be firm with people because there’s something you need to do, the response can become a sort of shrug-off of, “Well, you just don’t understand us because you’re not from here.” The question to yourself, the foreigner, is: are you going to be carrying your expectations from your home country here? Are you going to be the type of person who doesn’t understand that?

Some people will have the courage to honestly tell you how your behaviour is perceived when you’re operating in a culture that isn’t yours. Believe me, when you meet these people, you do whatever you can to keep them close to you. That kind of confrontational honesty is extremely rare, and you absolutely must reward it. Particularly when it’s upward, to a person of authority, or of perceived authority. When I meet people who give me that window into how I’m perceived or other forms of valuable, I go far out of my way to encourage it and let them know how deeply I value it.

I’m sure that’s very helpful. People can have such a hard time being impolite, or saying “No” across a cultural divide.

In the future, how would you like family or friends to look back on you after you’ve gone? Or what would you like them to take from your personal journey?

What I would like my family and friends to take from my life when I’m no longer here is that it’s okay to take unconventional risks for the sake of the journey and the process. Because when you follow your interests and the craziest things you can imagine for yourself, it gives birth to a beautiful journey.

And I’m not going to say that it’s always easy because it’s often not, and it’s often uncomfortable. But it leads you to a place of deep fulfilment and knowing yourself much more intimately. So, again: it's okay to do the unconventional. It's okay to take a big risk.

Do you have any advice to give young entrepreneurs just starting out?

My advice to young entrepreneurs just starting is to intentionally leave time for active reflection. The most successful entrepreneur is the one who does better month over month. And so to do that, it's critical to have time with yourself, where you're actively writing out or thinking on the following topics: What are you learning? What things have other people said to you that replay in your head? What are the things that you want to revisit at a later time? Crafting that relationship with yourself and getting in the habit of allocating time for these reflections is so helpful and will accelerate your growth.

If you had one last message to share with the world, what would it be?

What I want to say to the world is that the most important thing you can be is authentic to yourself. The world needs all of us; it needs our talents, unique quirks, interests, passions, questions, and curiosity to build a better world. Having the courage and bravery to be authentically you is the best gift you can give to yourself and the world.

Thank you so much for sharing some of your thoughts and your life with us. Your project of providing better nutrition through insect agriculture in Ghana is truly admirable. We hope you go further with it than your wildest dreams.

Legendary Foods can be found at www.legendaryfoodsafrica.com.

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