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A plant-based dinner discussion on the alternative protein landscape in Southeast Asia

Last April 20, Tuesday, the crew here at Tech in Asia hosted The Alternative Supper Club, the first in-person event we’ve had in a while. It is part of Tech in Asia Live, where we organize educational and community-building events for startup founders and investors in SEA.

And we’re happy that it was a rousing success! The restaurant Crane, where the event was held, bustled with chatter and laughter as 50 startup founders, impact investors, and sustainability enthusiasts gathered to have meaningful conversations regarding the alternative protein landscape in Southeast Asia.

Held in celebration of Earth Day, our goal with The Alternative Supper Club was to shine a light on the emerging industry that’s presenting a sustainable alternative to the resource-intensive and highly polluting animal farming sector.

We kicked off the evening with a panel discussion featuring innovators in the alternative protein landscape: Christian Cadeo, managing partner for Asia at Big Idea Ventures; Duncan Robertson, head of marketing at Karana; and Karen Tay, general manager of Classic Fine Foods.

Here are some of the most interesting insights from the discussion:

The state and the future of alternative proteins in SEA

Alternative proteins were rarely talked about in SEA five years ago. Fast-forward to today, and it has become a significant part of multinational food distributor Classic Fine Foods’ growth. According to Tay, the company has even hired an alternative protein category manager just to overlook it at the group level.

Regionally, there are also enablers that are fuelling the growth of the sector. In Singapore, for example, the government has rolled out the initiative “30 by 30,” where the city-state aims to produce 30% of its nutritional needs locally by 2030.

As such, foodtech has become an area of focus not only for government institutions such as the state-owned investment firm Temasek, the Economic Development Board, and Enterprise Singapore but also for corporate and institutional investors. This has led to the proliferation of plant-based food startups such as Karana and Shiok Meats, as well as large food corporations joining the alternative meats sector.

Matched by rising consumer demand and interest in environmental sustainability, we can’t imagine how quickly the alternative protein sector will continue to expand in SEA!

Karen Tay, general manager of Classic Fine Foods

The business model behind alternative proteins

In the plant-based meats industry, there are two main business models being tested at scale: The first is where products are sold through retail outlets while the other is where they are offered on menus through food service partners.

Karana, the first Asian brand to make its meat products almost entirely from young jackfruits, has adopted both models. Its plant-based meats are currently offered primarily through restaurants around Singapore, but it also plans to launch retail products that consumers can buy directly at grocery stores.

Meanwhile, food distribution companies like Classic Fine Foods act as the bridge between innovative foodtech companies and restaurants, hotels, pastry shops, top supermarket chains, and gourmet food outlets.

The recipe for success and mass adoption

Although the alternative protein landscape in SEA is growing at a rapid pace, the truth is that it is still a very niche sector, mainly comprising climate- and health-conscious consumers. When asked what will help alternative protein companies achieve mass adoption, all of our panelists agreed on “taste, accessibility, and transparency.”

First and foremost, companies need to master great-tasting products that are as close to the real thing as possible. “Taste is king. Health and sustainability are very important drivers, but they don’t trump taste,” Karana’s Robertson explained.

Plant-based meat players should also focus on making their products accessible to everyday consumers. Although prices have generally decreased, with companies such as Impossible Foods doing significant price cuts, most plant-based alternatives are still much pricier than conventional meats.

Consumers shouldn’t have to pay significant premiums in the market to access healthier and more sustainable options.

Finally, brands also have a responsibility to help consumers navigate their food choices. The amount of fancy advertising for alternative protein has made many question, how much of it is product quality vs. smart marketing?

According to Robertson, “There is [still] a long way to go [when it comes to] transparency and truth in advertising.” Companies should focus on educating consumers on their production processes and how they source their ingredients instead of falsely blowing up their products’ quality.

“Since people get scared by words they can’t pronounce or recognize, transparency and the explanation of an ingredient list is crucial. Karana’s products are great examples of [food items made] with only four ingredients,” Classic Fine Foods’ Tay shared.

Whole-plant meat shreds from Karana

It’s dinner time!

After the fruitful discussion, our 50 guests indulged in a delicious plant-based and sustainably sourced three-course dinner perfected by chefs José Luis Del Amo, executive chef of Classic Fine Foods, and Damian Piedrahita, former plant-based chef at Shangri-La Group and the founder of vegan cheese shop 4My.

Chefs José Luis Del Amo (left) and Damian Piedrahita (center)

As we wrapped up the night, everyone was reminded of the importance of using tech for good. As our CEO Willis Wee put it, “We pride ourselves as visionaries, innovators, and disruptors, so I hope to see more founders and investors in the tech startup community tackle climate change or at least go carbon neutral.”

We are immensely grateful to be part of such a positive and diverse community!

This event is part of Tech in Asia Live, where we organize educational and community-building events for startup founders and investors in SEA. Feeling FOMO? Subscribe to our Live plan at just $59/year and you’ll have unlimited access to all of our master classes, pitch nights, and annual conferences.

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Yoyo Zheng

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