As one of the oldest life forms on earth, spirulina — a bluegreen protein-rich algae — has become in demand as a nutritional super-food. And while it traditionally has required large, open-air ponds for growing on a commercial level, one company has found a way to produce it more efficiently by transforming vacant rooftops into urban farms.
Bangkok-based EnerGaia produces about 1.5 tons of fresh spirulina paste each year using an innovative rooftop production system. Saumil Shah began experimenting with the concept in 2008, founded his company in 2009, and began producing and selling food-grade spirulina in August 2012.
“We sell it to organic food sellers, hotels and restaurants throughout Bangkok,” he says. “We also sell direct to customers at farmer’s markets.”
Spirulina can be used as a food source of its own, providing an alternative to meat, but it’s also popular as a primary ingredient for everything from smoothies to pasta. Shah’s operation allows the company to produce huge quantities of the super-food; the rooftops’ high temperatures and consistent sunlight help them optimize growing time.
“Spirulina is a single-celled plant, so it actually uptakes CO2 from the atmosphere as it grows,” Shah explains. “This is a huge environmental benefit compared to the current meat industry. We’re sustainably producing a plant-based, high-protein food which can be a substitute for unsustainable protein like beef, pork and chicken in people’s diets. So if you compare our carbon footprint to that of the beef industry, for example, it is much better.”
Another benefit to EnerGaia’s unique rooftop system is that traditional forms of agriculture demand large amounts of water; producing 2.2 pounds of corn takes more than 237 gallons, and the water cannot be reused. By comparison, that same amount of spirulina can be made from less than four gallons of water, and much of the water can be reused for future spirulina production.