What do you do when businesses and young people are leaving your 2800-soul rural town, and your best remaining assets are a crumbling water pump station from 1903, low-margin wheat fields, saline ground water, and 164 sunny days a year?
That was the conundrum plaguing the Shire of Merredin, a farming community in the dusty Wheatbelt of Western Australia.
Greg Powell, the Shire’s chief executive, threw an email to Tom Bosschaert, founder of a quirky sustainability consultancy on the other side of the globe, in the Netherlands. A methodical and inspiring conversation ensued.
Before long, Bosschaert landed at Perth Airport and made the three-hour drive along Route 94 to Mereddin, where he was to meet with the shire council, farmers, business owners, and the town’s children to help forge a new future for the Wheatbelt town.
Spirulina: green rainmaker?
“We never parachute silver-bullet solutions into the communities that we serve,” says Bosschaert, “nor are we just neutral brainstorm facilitators. We inject our system thinking and sustainability expertise into the co-creation processes that we lead.”
In Merredin’s case, the option that came out on top was developing an aquaculture plant to grow and process Spirulina, a micro-organism globally much in demand as a food supplement, but which virtually no-one in Merredin had heard of, let alone considered growing and selling.
Brackish water: a blessing
“The Spirulina plant will create jobs, catalyze a more diversified and resilient local economy, and help us regain control over the value chain of our produce,” notes Powell.
The Spirulina operation catches a host of birds with one stone. For starters, Spirulina thrives on exactly the type of brackish water that’s now cracking the foundations of buildings and roads around Merredin. The Spirulina basins will consume enough water to bring down the groundwater to a level where it no longer causes problems to the town.
Spirulina cereal bars
With global demand for Spirulina tablets and safe colorants for food and cosmetics booming, Spirulina is a smart addition to Merredin’s economy. It requires limited investment and offers attractive profit margins.
Spirulina also ties in nicely with the local wheat economy, thinks Bosschaert. “Merredin farmers can create and capture value-added from Spirulina-fortified cookies, cakes, breads, and cereal bars for the Australian market, or even export them to health-conscious markets in Asia, the US, or Europe.”
Importantly, in this age of climate change, Spirulina is a CO2-guzzler. This offers opportunities for win-win linkages with CO2-producing industries such as neighboring farms and agri businesses. Their waste can be fed to biogassifiers to produce feedstock for the Spirulina farm as well as steam-generated electricity for its partners. The Spirulina farm itself will mainly run on solar power.
Merredin’s abandoned water pump station, a testament to the quality and dedication put forth by the early pioneers of the Western Australian desert, will get a new lease of life as a visitors center with a café. The huge arc through which trains used to ride into the building to deliver coal and wood for the pumps will become a panorama window overlooking the Spirulina ponds and the valley beyond.
Green pie in the sky?
“Spirulina farming is not just a proven technology” asserts Bosschaert. “It’s a proven catalyst for economic and social development that has already turned declining South African towns back into thriving communities.”
The global shortage of Spirulina ensures high profit margins. The simple technology and limited investments required make this healthy green micro-organism an excellent industry to revive economically challenged areas like Western Australia’s Wheatbelt region.
Adds Powell: “If the plant goes ahead, we’ll see up to 60 new jobs, which is a fairly big thing for Merredin.” The feasibility study by Except found that the growing global supply of Spirulina cannot possibly keep up with the booming demand. The resulting strong prices make a medium-sized plant of 120 ton production per year safely feasible.
The Merredin Council is expected to soon approve funding for a more detailed business case for the plant. Powell believes 100 percent Shire ownership of the venture could secure the financial security of the town for future generations.
Shire ownership would also allow sharing accumulated know-how with other future micro-organism farms across the Wheatbelt region, which a private investor would be less likely to do.
Merredin College and nearby Murdoch University will support the Spirulina venture with training and research, while Collgar Wind Farm has already chipped in by partly funding the feasibility study.
Counting sunshine and churches
The project clearly has the wind under its wings, even before the first brick has been laid. How come? “That doesn’t surprise me, to be honest,” comments Bosschaert. “We often see broad community support, as well as buy-in from government and industry, because we work with a true co-creation process and bring in rigorous scientific evidence to select and deselect options.
“When we came here, and even before, we took stock of the ecological, economic, and social capital in this town. Its climate, land use, skill sets, demography. Literally anything from annual sunshine days to church membership. Nothing was labeled a liability or an asset. Saline groundwater, for instance, may kill cattle, but is great for Spirulina.
Symbiosis in Development
“So we mapped the ecological and economic flows around Merredin, and also identified which available resources were not included in those flows yet. Then we talked with the Shire’s farmers, teachers, parents, business owners, council members, and kids to understand the demands and dreams of the town.”
The framework for the research and interviews by Bosschaert and his team is the Symbiosis in Development model, a sophisticated innovation methodology developed over the course of 15 years since Bosschaert founded Except while still in college.
Deleting the dots
“Connecting all the dots between the community’s needs and resources, we found dozens and dozens of possible solutions. We then narrowed them down to the most promising ones, and a Spirulina plant came out on top. That process is the reason why the venture is so well-embedded in the community and well-received by the authorities,” explains Bosschaert.
Australia’s Department of Agriculture and Food, and the Wheatbelt Development Commission have indicated willingness to support the project in Merredin, as it ties in perfectly with their strategies to strengthen the regional economy in an ecologically sustainable way.
They’ll build it, and you’ll go see it
Observes Powell: “Recently we’ve seen a lot of corporatization in the wheat industry, which is resulting in larger farms and smaller populations. So if the towns in this region are going to continue to exist, they need to find other ways to provide jobs and attract people.” In Powell’s view, the Spirulina venture perfectly fits the bill for Merredin.
So, mark your calendar for a visit in the spring of 2018 to the bright-green Spirulina ponds reflecting the clear blue sky over Merreddin. Take a tour around the drying factory, and enjoy a Spirulina muffin with your tea in the visitors café in renovated Waterpump Station No.4, run by a Merredin twenty-something who didn’t have to move away to make a living. Driving home with a trunk filled with wholesale-priced bottles of Spirulina for your friends, you smile as you think of Merredin’s story of ingenuity and survival.
“Build it, and they’ll come.”