South African Insect Protein Entrepreneurs Now Turn To Animal-Free Dairy

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The young South African entrepreneurs behind insect-based ice cream are now venturing into 100% animal-free proteins. Called De Novo Dairy, the new startup is tapping precision fermentation, the tech that enables the creation of molecularly identical milk proteins without any cows. 

Based in Cape Town, De Novo Dairy is the newest startup in South Africa’s nascent alt-protein industry. The company was created by Jean Louwrens and Leah Bessa, two of the co-founders behind insect ice-cream food tech Gourmet Grubb, who teamed up with Richard Grieves and Joni Symon after a mutual introduction. 

This venture, unlike their previous one, is 100% animal-free. De Novo Dairy, as the name suggests, is brewing “new” dairy proteins sustainably through precision fermentation. Together, the team of four wants to be the first company in Africa to use fermentation to make animal-free dairy that tastes, feels, and contains the same nutrition as the real deal. 

Co-founders Jean Louwrens (L) and Leah Bessa (R). (Image: De Novo Dairy)

Brewing dairy proteins

De Novo Dairy is using the same tech that a growing list of startups are now leveraging to make animal-free dairy proteins. Perfect Day was the pioneering startup of the sector, using the tech to create its bioidentical whey proteins that are now used to make several brands of lactose-free, real dairy ice creams like Brave Robot and Ice Age. 

A number of other food techs are now also working on animal-free dairy, such as American-Australian startup Change Foods, Berlin-headquartered Formo, and San Francisco’s New Culture. These three companies are all using animal-free dairy proteins to make cow-free cheese. Other companies like Israel’s Remilk or British firm Better Dairy are making milk. 

Co-founders Richard Grieves (L) and Joni Symon (R). (Image: De Novo Dairy)

De Novo Dairy wants to be the first within the African continent to do the same. It plans to use the tech to brew real dairy proteins, in a process much like fermenting beer. Then, the startup will combine the product with plant-based fats and sugars to create lactose-free, real dairy alternatives, from cheese to yogurt. 

R&D stage

In a recent interview with Business Insider, co-founder Louwrens explained that the young startup is still in its initial R&D stages. The transition away from insect protein came amid the pandemic, when it became clear that “as amazing as insects are for people to consume, it wasn’t the right time to continue during lockdown.” 

De Novo Dairy are developing real dairy proteins to make animal-free cheese, yogurt and ice cream. (Image: Unsplash)

He added that growing proteins in petri dishes using precision fermentation tech was a more “consumer-friendly” approach to getting people to switch to sustainable protein alternatives. At the moment, De Novo Dairy is around 8 months into their R&D, and plans to debut its prototype in the coming months before scaling up to launch in around 2 years’ time. 

At the moment, the company is raising funds to scale, and has already gained the backing of alt-protein investor Ryan Bethencourt’s rolling fund Sustainable Food Ventures (SFV). The undisclosed funding marks SFV’s first dairy precision fermentation investment in Africa.

The startup plans to take a B2B approach, selling its animal-free dairy proteins to food producers to make products such as baking mixes, as well as all types of alt-dairy, including cheese, yogurt, milk, and ice cream. 

Lead image courtesy of Unsplash.


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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