Pest project aims to make insects a link in the food chain
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Be warned about trying to work remotely from the Pret A Manger sandwich shop on Baker Street. A good five-minute walk from the campus of London Business School, it is still close enough to draw a United Nations of graduate management students for coffee and distracting conversation. During one recent visit, an American, noting that he was the son of a war correspondent, prompted a customer at a neighbouring table to join in, declaring he was an Afghan.
It is this melting pot, still more obvious when you reach the LBS campus, that attracted Youssef Hanna. The Egyptian son of a construction industry entrepreneur, Hanna is trying to build his own venture to develop sustainable alternative food production in his home country.
Hanna hopes that Khepra, his early-stage biotech start-up, will one day help to make the food supply chain in the Middle East and Africa more equitable and sustainable. Khepra, which is exploring the use of insects in animal feed, was conceived shortly before Hanna moved from Cairo to begin his masters in management degree at LBS last year. Hanna used his time on the course not only to improve his financial skills but also to develop a business plan and raise all his pre-seed funding with the help of the LBS network.
The idea of creating a social enterprise came to him as a university undergraduate in the northern Dutch city of Groningen. He became a student support worker for Shelter City Groningen, a charity providing help to people defending human rights in other countries. Hanna mentored people from Egypt, Brazil and Nigeria. “I started thinking about how businesses could make an impact in these countries,” he says.
Hanna’s father had started his construction business on the Red Sea, specialising in factory buildings. But life was not always straightforward for his family. “My father’s business has managed to survive two revolutions in Egypt. It was very intense,” he says. “The highs are great but the lows are difficult.”
Hanna attributes his passion for sustainability to scuba diving trips with his father close to the company’s base, where some of the world’s largest coral beds can be found.
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“It was very moving because you could see the beauty but also how the ecosystem was being destroyed,” he says. “I could see how what we eat now is contributing to the ecosystem being destroyed. If the fish die, the coral dies.”
He was also fascinated by the ancient history of his homeland, noting that respect for the land and the Nile river meant that there was enough good quality food for everybody, something that is not the case in modern Egypt.
“Eighty per cent of people in Egypt cannot afford a nutritious diet and that’s not acceptable,” he says.
Khepra, named for the ancient Egyptian scarab beetle-faced god of renewal and regeneration, is an attempt to help solve this problem by encouraging alternative food sources. Meanwhile, the khapra beetle is one of the most destructive pests of grain products and seeds. But Hanna saw an opportunity in the growing market of alternative food sources, such as insects that can be used in animal feed, so started investigating methods of farming bugs. Such a move would require regulatory approval from the Egyptian government, which he does not yet have.
“I came to LBS to learn how to finance, manage and scale disruptive innovation,” he says, adding that the entrepreneurial culture of the school and the British capital, as well as the networks this opened up were an important selling point of the masters programme.
“I only wanted to do this degree in a place that gave me real experience. There is value in the subjects but it is how you are taught and the people who teach you that is really important,” Hanna says.
He highlights classes on new venture development run by Rupert Merson, adjunct professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, including Saturday sessions developing a business plan, and the lessons on entrepreneurship in emerging markets led by the award-winning teacher and author John Mullins, associate professor of management practice in marketing and entrepreneurship. Hanna also particularly praises the intensive Innovation for Impact course taught jointly by professor of marketing Rajesh Chandy and executive fellow of marketing Nick Hughes.
“For a week, we were grappling with how we could have an impact with technology and innovative business models. Every day there was a guest speaker for an hour, talking about how they grew businesses with tens of thousands of people, and managing an IPO process,” Hanna recalls.
“After the course, I bounced my ideas off of Nick and Rajesh and I had some great feedback from them.”
Hanna has raised $20,000 through grants and competitions at LBS to get Khepra off the ground and plans a seed round for later in the year. An internship as an analyst with a Dubai-based venture capital firm focused on the technology industry has helped Hanna prepare his pitching skills, but he also benefited from having classmates with previous experience in that industry.
“I have learnt so much from the people I met through LBS,” he says, adding that the first friendship he struck up at LBS was with someone who had been a VC for three years before returning to full-time study.
“I knew coming to LBS, I would get a good-quality classroom education,” Hanna says. “What I didn’t expect was to come out of this with this level of confidence that I can do it as an entrepreneur.”
2022 Founder of Khepra
2021 Begins Masters in Management programme at London Business School
2021 Graduated with a BSc in Social Sciences from University College Groningen, Netherlands
2018-2020 Social mentor for Shelter City Groningen. Human rights support for people from Egypt, Brazil and Nigeria
2018 Sales and marketing intern at Leister Egypt in Cairo
2017-2018 Bartender for Bario Bars in London