In the wake of Brexit, at least 440 banks and financial services companies are moving some part of their operations and managed assets from London to cities in Europe, according to an analysis by New Financial, a London think-tank. But even as London’s status as Europe’s capital of finance is dimming, no other European city as yet stands to replace it, said William Wright, the founder of New Financial.
These 440-odd firms aren’t shutting shop in London altogether; in fact, Wright said, only three of these are moving wholesale. The remainder will continue to have large presences in London. “They may even keep London as some sort of headquarters,” he said. “But they’re all opening hubs in Europe, for regulatory purposes but also for practical reasons, to manage any future EU business.”
New Financial reckons that the firms will take around £900 billion ($1.2 trillion) in assets with them—roughly 10% of the UK’s banking system, a severe hit in terms of jobs as well as the country’s tax base. The report’s estimate is a rough one, Wright admits. But a more official figure has already been floated, he added, so “ultimately our number is irrelevant. I don’t say that often about our own research.” Andrea Enria, the chair of the European Central Bank’s (ECB’s) supervisory board, stated earlier this year that banks are preparing to move 1.2 trillion Euros ($1.44 trillion) from London to European cities.
“When Enria says this is going to happen, it isn’t speculation,” Wright said. “It’s because the ECB and other national regulators have already agreed that these assets are going to move. His figure must be the sum of what has already been agreed but not publicly disclosed.”
These relocating firms are scattering across the EU. Dublin has drawn a quarter of them, according to New Financial’s data, but Luxembourg, Frankfurt, Paris, and Amsterdam are also vying strongly for companies departing London. The distribution of the finance industry in the wake of Brexit is likely to be “multi-polar,” rather than concentrated in a single city as in pre-Brexit Europe.
To be sure, there are financial services firms moving in to London as well. In February, the financial consultancy Bovill found that around 1,000 firms from the EU, currently operating in the UK under a temporary permissions regime, are considering opening their first offices in the country.
But Wright thinks the firms that do follow through with new offices will be far fewer in number: perhaps 300-500, with much smaller volumes of assets under management when compared to the companies leaving the UK.
“As a sample, we looked at 30 banks currently using the temporary permissions regime to access the UK market, and without any physical presence as yet in the UK today,” Wright said. “With one exception, they’re all small companies. Two-thirds of them have balance sheets of less than 5 billion euros.” The really big banks and financial firms? They’re all already in London, for the most part—and they’re the ones looking towards Europe for new homes.
During Zoom meetings with colleagues, I am usually holding a second, secret meeting with my own face.
The conversations in this meeting-within-a-meeting can get pretty tense. Why are you like this? I ask my chin, which is sprouting a bright red pimple. You need a whitening kit, I tell my teeth, which look dingy when I smile at a colleague’s joke. Stop looking so tired! I command my under-eyes circles, worried that my teammates will mistake my sleepiness for boredom.
Getting off the call, I often feel noticeably disheartened—not because of anything my co-workers said, but because I’ve just spent 30 minutes trying to resist the self-critical thoughts that women are typically socialized-slash-brainwashed with.
Plenty of other women are in this same technological boat, according to new research from authors at Stanford University and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Women are more likely than men to experience so-called Zoom fatigue. The reason comes down to what the researchers call “mirror anxiety”—a feeling of self-consciousness “triggered by the self-view in video conferences that acts as an omnipresent mirror during social interactions,” according to the paper.
How distracting is it to see yourself on a Zoom call?
The research, which was published on SSRN and has not yet been peer-reviewed, is based on surveys of nearly 10,600 people about their experiences of Zoom meetings. They found that 1 in 7 women report feeling “very” or “extremely” fatigued after Zoom calls, compared to 1 in 20 men.
Women also had longer meetings and fewer breaks between them, but the gender difference remained even after the researchers controlled for those factors. The biggest reason for the gender discrepancy lay in the differences between how men and women responded to questions like, “During a video conference, how concerned do you feel about seeing yourself?” and “During a video conference, how distracting is it to see yourself?”
Women were more likely to report being negatively affected by seeing themselves onscreen, in keeping with other research that shows women are more prone to “self-focused attention” than men—a habit that’s linked to depression and anxiety. The researchers also found that women were more likely to use first-person pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “my” in the survey’s open-ended responses, another sign of self-focused attention that has been linked to depression.
The study has several limitations, including the fact that participants were self-selecting (and therefore not representative of the general population) and it relied on people to self-report how much they used Zoom and how they felt afterward. Memory can be deceiving.
How to be less self-conscious on video calls
So why is it that watching ourselves in video cameras creates such a big emotional wallop for some of us? For one thing, as Barnard psychologist Tara Well previously told Quartz, “We’re all wired to find problems and faults and flaws and foibles. When we look at ourselves for more than a few minutes, we see things that are wrong with us.”
To combat these tendencies, Well recommends mirror meditation, in which people spend time learning to gaze non-judgmentally at their own reflections. Try sitting in front of a mirror for 10 minutes a day and following Well’s instructions:
“Bring your attention to the present moment with yourself. Then have an open awareness, where you’re open to seeing yourself in a new way, you’re open to not knowing what you’re going to necessarily see. [And then] have a kind intention toward yourself.”
The Stanford paper describes a number of other psychological downsides of Zoom that can’t be easily fixed:
Feeling physically trapped (since you can’t stretch or move around the way you can during in-person interactions)
Coping with hyper gaze (having 17 pairs of eyes on you, whether or not you’re speaking, can make you self-conscious)
Experiencing cognitive overload (since we have to make extra efforts to communicate nonverbally on Zoom and interpret others’ gestures, leading to situations in which we find ourselves overanalyzing whether our boss’s slight head-nod means she’s considering our idea or actually hates it but is too polite to say so)
Despite these problems, Zoom isn’t going anywhere—particularly as more companies plan to transition to hybrid work or go entirely remote. But the knowledge that video meetings have a disproportionately negative impact on women may be one more reason to try to minimize them, or to swap out a Zoom chat for picking up the phone.
Daily Covid-19 cases in India crossed the two-lakh mark on April 14, with an official death toll of over 1,000. This was the highest-ever rise in the country’s caseload since January 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic began. India now has 1,40,74,564 Covid-19 cases and has seen 1,73,123 deaths, and is the second-worst affected country in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Despite a continuous surge in the number of cases, public gatherings like the Kumbh in Haridwar and election rallies in West Bengal have not been cancelled. Shortly after union health minister Harsh Vardhan blamed ordinary Indians for not following Covid-appropriate behaviour, prime minister Narendra Modi boasted of holding a “massive rally” in West Bengal as part of his election campaigning.
Union home minister Amit Shah, West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee, and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi have also held election rallies in the state with huge crowds present.
The 2021 Kumbh, which is currently underway in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, has been described as a super-spreader event by medical experts. With lakhs of devotees attending it, the Kumbh has already accelerated the rise of Covid-19 cases in the city and is expected to cause a huge surge in the overall figures of the country by the time it ends on April 30. State authorities have said that there are no plans to cut the event short in spite of the raging pandemic. Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat has also gone on record to say that bathing in the Ganges River, considered holy by Hindus, will keep coronavirus at bay.
Amidst the election rallies and the religious gatherings, cartoonists from India have found ample inspiration to fuel their illustrations. Here are some of them.
Kimberly Potter, the 26-year police veteran who fatally shot Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in Minnesota on April 11, has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors will be tasked to prove to the courts that she was negligent in drawing and firing her Glock pistol instead of her Taser stun gun when subduing the 20-year old.
A widely scrutinized body-cam video shows Potter yelling “Taser! Taser! Taser!“ before firing a bullet into Wright’s chest which killed him on the scene. Beneath what appears to be another appalling accidental shooting actually belies a complex, systemic issue at the core of America’s problematic, hyper-aggressive policing philosophy. This ethos is ultimately reflected in the design of standard tools law enforcement officers carry and how they use them. It’s bigger than an industrial design problem, but it’s certainly part of the issue.
How could a veteran cop—who even served as a training officer—mistake a stun gun for a pistol? Many speculate that it has something to do with the physical similarities between the two objects Potter allegedly mixed up. Both the Taser and the gun, for instance, are held via a pistol grip. It’s a form in tools such as power drills, gasoline pump nozzles, and even the now ubiquitous body thermometers at Covid-19 check points. “It’s ergonomically simple and it’s an ideal shape for a trigger finger to depress a button,” explains Pascual Wawoe, director of the undergraduate product design department at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.
Tasers have a different grip and weight than guns
Axon Enterprise, the manufacturer of the Taser brand stun guns used by most police departments in the US, told Reuters that they’ve worked to incorporate differentiating features such as developing a different grip and making them a different weight than firearms. Most of their Taser models—but not all—come in bright yellow to contrast with the black color of police hand pistols.
Many experts, including Wawoe, believe that’s not enough. “A better solution would not look like a handgun or shouldn’t feel like one,” he argues. Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concurs that it’s partly an industrial design problem. “The Tasers and guns are indeed too similar in their shapes and should definitely be designed differently to minimize the confusion aspect that can occur during stressful situations,” she tells Quartz.
Cases when a cop confused a Taser for a gun are rare, but they do happen. According to the Star Tribune’s research, there have been 11 court filings that involves a police officer accidentally firing the wrong weapon since 1999—the year when Taser International introduced its first pistol-shaped model called Advanced Taser M26. Of those instances, three people died. The company changed its name to Axon in 2017.
A better solution would not look like a handgun
The most commonly cited reason for the error is lack of training. “You cannot control what people will do during the traffic stop,” Haberfeld explains. She says recruiting qualified officers and training them is key. “Reinforcing their communication and tactical skills with more frequent and scenario-based approach [drills] needs to be introduced in a much more frequent manner.”
But experts also contend that the design of Tasers also needs a major rethink.
The history and evolution of Tasers
Tasers didn’t always look like guns. When physicist Jack Cover first introduced his invention in 1974, the “weapon for immobilization and capture” as he called it in his patent application looked more like a flashlight. Named after his favorite childhood novel, “Thomas Swift Electric Rifle” (Cover apparently added an “A” later because he “got tired of answering the phone ‘T-S-E-R’”), police officers celebrated the device as another tool that could help them apprehend suspects without having to fire a gun. “The general principle of escalation of force by law enforcement consisted of the following continuum: verbal control, hand control, handcuffs, mace, batons, and finally firearms,” wrote William C. Plouffe in the Encyclopedia of Race and Crime. “The huge gap between the use of the baton and the use of a firearm presented problems for law enforcement.” After he solved an engineering issue, replacing gunpower with compressed nitrogen, Cover’s Taser guns became particularly popular for marshals aboard airplanes.
Over the course of their evolution, stun guns have also resembled TV remote controls, pen lights, tubes of lipstick, or even electric shavers as seen in a 1995 entry in the Sharper Image catalog.
In 2019, a “Spiderman-like lasso” restraint device called Bolawrap was proposed as an alternative to stun guns.
In the late 1990s, Tasers eventually mimicked the shape of handguns, as we know them today because the pistol-grip, “L-shape” design had been found to be the most intuitive. “We design things as extensions of our own bodies,” explains Glenn LaVertu, an industrial design professor who studies the role of design and technology in the US gun control debate. “Guns, drills, thermometers, Tasers, and a whole host of other tools are meant as an elongation or surrogate of ourselves.”
LaVertu says the L-shape became a classic among industrial designers because it’s essentially an extension of our hands. “Power tools with a grip ensure that the user has a strong hold of the tool so that it can perform its task efficiently,” he explains. “The same is true for firearms with the additional need to maintain accuracy during the firing and an ability to hold a control the gun as the ignition kicks-back. Other objects with this L-shape perform different tasks but all have the same design concern in mind: aim and control.”
The neuroscience of Taser user error
Charles Mauro, a humans factors expert and president of Mauro Usability Science, was horrified to hear about the tragic events in Minnesota, that he believes, could’ve been avoided had there been better understanding of how the human brain processes information in high stress situations.
The shape of a Taser is similar to a gun
“This is not a new problem. It is very clear to me that based on an actual detailed understanding of how the human information processing system deals with objects in the real world, we learn that what may intuitively appear to be two products that are substantially different, in fact, aren’t experienced that way—especially under high levels of stress,” he explains. “This is very well understood in cognitive neuroscience.”
Beyond the shape of Taser guns, a policeman’s packed duty belt is also a contributing factor. “When you attach all manner of objects to a belt, it’s just straight up confusion theory that predicts that the response time is going to go down and confusion is going to go up,” explains Mauro.
The lethal weapon should be the one that is the hardest to reach
Wawoe also thinks the placement of the stun gun vis-a-vis a service firearm needs to be swapped. Police officers in the US are trained to keep their firearm within easy-reach of their dominant hand and Tasers are placed on the side of the weak hand. Wawoe says switching their positions could make a profound difference. “I think that the lethal weapon should be the one that is the hardest to reach,” he argues. “To reach for a firearm, you have to make a very deliberate decision.”
‘I think a firearm should literally be a last resort,” says Wawoe who grew up in the Netherlands. “This is how the police in other Western industrialized countries they treat the firearm, for example. They literally use it as the last step; they don’t pull their guns in a traffic stop. But they also have the luxury of also knowing that the odds are extremely low that a passenger or a driver is armed,” he points out. That luxury doesn’t exist in the US where its Constitution establishes a right to own firearms.
Expert users make very different mistakes than beginners
And how could an experienced cop like Potter make such a blunder?
Mauro explains that it’s precisely expert users who make these types of missteps. He says, expert users make very different types of mistakes from beginners. “The most experienced users employ heuristics in their decision making. That means that they have so much experience that they are likely to take shortcuts.” In this case, it appears that Potter may have reached for an instrument that felt like a Taser without looking at it, trusting the number of times she’s done it successfully.
“The bottom line is that when it comes to evaluating products that are life-determining, human intuition is often inadequate,” says Mauro. “The underlying neuroscience often leads to counterintuitive solutions and insights.”
A clamor for better design and better-designed systems
Wawoe explains that good product design has to be “intuitive, obvious, and idiot-proof.” The more consequential or potentially life-threatening it is, the more scrutiny and testing it requires, he says. “Designers must anticipate the worst case scenario of a product,” says Wawoe. “That level of safety or ‘idiot proofness’ goes up with certain products like medical equipment or weapons, in this case.” Good designers, he argues, don’t just design the product, they also think through all the use case scenarios. Beyond finessing the shape of objects, it’s also about improving the system around it.
What I can say with clear confidence is that the development of these devices has not undergone any level of serious human factor science
“It’s a systems problem,” Mauro observes, “[It’s] a combination of training, product design, learning about user biases… the pressure and stress of the situation has a dramatic impact on human information processing too.”
Mauro contends since its invention in the 1970s, that Tasers haven’t undergone sufficient user testing for such a widely-used weapon. “What I can say with clear confidence is that the development of these devices has not undergone any level of serious human factor science,” he points out.
Wawoe calls the pistol-shaped Taser’s form “lazy design.”
“The primary design objective for a Taser is to essentially make it easy to understand functionally by making it as close as possible to a handgun,” concurs Mauro. “It’s a mapping of one design on to another. Whenever you do that, you’re almost guaranteeing that you’re going to have a classification error.”
A 14-year-old online travel company in India has fallen victim to the Covid-19-triggered economic slump—and it might be the first of several.
On April 15, e-commerce giant Flipkart said it will acquire Cleartrip, a Mumbai based-based flight and hotel booking portal, for an undisclosed amount. Some media reports have pegged the deal at around $40 million (Rs299 crore). In 2019, Cleartrip had posted a revenue of $100 million and registered gross bookings to the tune of $1.5 billion.
“This is a distress sale but not so surprising as most travel firms have faced unprecedented stress due to Covid 19,” said Anindya Ghose, Heinz Riehl Chair professor of business at New York University’s Stern School.
Flipkart plans to retain all employees of Cleartrip and let the company function as a separate entity. So far, Cleartrip has been doing well in the air travel space but trailing when it comes to cabs, hotels, and holiday packages. The acquisition could help the company make strides in all these categories. “Flipkart had indicated its interest in travel when it had first partnered with MakeMyTrip in 2018 and then switched to ixigo,” Ghose said.
Founded in 2006 by Stuart Crighton, Hrush Bhatt, and Matthew Spacie, Cleartrip was once among India’s most prized online travel agents (OTAs). By 2018, the company had expanded beyond India to the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region and acquired Saudi Arabia-based online travel aggregator Flyin. But 2020 was hard.
In February this year, Cleartrip’s auditors said, “these events or conditions indicate the existence of material uncertainties that may cast significant doubt on the company’s ability to continue as a going concern,” according to regulatory filings accessed by BusinessLine.
And while it survived thus far, with the second wave raging, the future looks bleak. Bookings for air travel and hotels have dropped at least 10-15% in April as compared to February.
The upside to the deal with Flipkart, owned by $548 billion American retail giant Walmart, is that Cleartrip will have fuller coffers to stave off competition. “My presumption is that the shareholders of Cleartrip felt that it will survive and potentially prosper in the hands of a deep-pocketed owner like Walmart,” said independent startup sector analyst Harish HV. “Given the situation, this may be described as an optimum strategy rather than a distress.”
What about EaseMyTrip, MakeMyTrip, and Yatra?
Cleartrip’s weak financial health is not unique. The whole online travel and ticketing sector is in the doldrums.
Even the industry bellwether has been on shaky ground. MakeMyTrip, which together with subsidiary GoIbibo holds a nearly 60% market share of the online travel category in India, announced salary cuts in April last year. It reported revenue of $56.8 million in the quarter ended December, a decrease of nearly 60% year-on-year.
The company, which has been hoping to make a recovery to pre-Covid levels on the back of domestic travel is making a big marketing push. In late March, it released the “Unseen India” travel film to drum up enthusiasm. In early April, it released a travel checklist for 2021, which includes a “door-to-door” baggage transfer from the departing address to the destination address so travellers don’t have to handle luggage at the airport.
The case for contactless online travel agencies over traditional offline agencies is definitely strengthening amid the coronavirus outbreak. And once the habit builds, customers won’t walk it back—pandemic or no pandemic. However, the unprecedented surge in cases in the country has likely thrown another spanner in the works by bringing travel to a standstill again.
“The OTA space will need deep pockets as it is linked to travel which is seeing repeated disruptions and no clarity on when a recovery to earlier times will happen,” said Harish HV.
What makes things harder for the likes of Cleartrip is how saturated the market already is with cash-rich competitors. EaseMyTrip—the only Indian OTA to have a sound net profit margin over the last three years despite charging no convenience fees—had a healthy enough business to list on Indian exchanges in March this year. Then there’s Yatra, bought by Atlanta-based Ebix for $337 million in July 2019. Amsterdam-based Booking.com is also a major player in the country.
China clocked 18.3% growth in the first quarter. The double-digit figure is because of a low base from the same period last year, when the coronavirus caused the economy to shrink. Compared with 2019, itâ€™s still 10% growth. Signs of brisk economic expansion in the US and China boosted global stocks to near-record highs.
Throughout the crisis, energy economists have been clear: Upgrading the grid for extreme weather is technically easy. Winter storms don’t cause regular blackouts in colder states. But it requires regulators to make a tricky value judgement about how much capital spending to require of electric utilities (costs that will ultimately be passed to customers) in order to avert a disaster that may arrive only once a decade.
In an April 15 analysis, economists at the Dallas Federal Reserve answer with a resounding yes. Estimates from independent auditors have pegged statewide economic losses and damages from the storm and related outages at $80 to $155 billion. But the Fed economists focus on a narrower, slightly more esoteric metric: the “value of lost load,” which puts a dollar value, per megawatt-hour, on customers’ willingness to pay for electricity service. How much would Texas homes and businesses have been willing to pay in electric bills for the power that got cut off? The Fed analysis puts that number at $4.3 billion. In other words, that’s what the Fed sees as a reasonable cap for winterization spending before it ends up costing more than what the power is worth. Assuming that such a winter storm is a once-in-a-decade event, that’s an annual budget of $430 million.
As for cold-weather upgrades: The Fed estimates that winterizing the state’s oil and gas wells would cost $85-$200 million annually, depending on how many new wells are drilled (recall that gas supply chains were frozen, as well as power plants). Plus there’s a one-time cost of $95 million to outfit all 162 gas-fired power plants with the winter upgrades recommended in a federal review of the last big Texas blackout, in 2011. Retrofitting wind turbines is a bit trickier. The best option is self-warming blades, but these can cost up to $400,000 for each of the state’s 13,000 turbines; instead, the analysis recommends a lower-cost combination of “upgraded blade coatings, cold-weather lubricants and de-icing drones.” (Solar, which provides just 2% of the state’s power, isn’t mentioned.)
The upshot is that these expenses “are within the bounds of being economically justified,” the analysis concluded. This isn’t too surprising: Analysis after analysis finds that in general, the cost of acting to avert climate impacts dramatically outweighs the costs of inaction. And for Texas, if severe winter storms become more common as a result of global warming—as, counterintuitively, they might—the math is even more clear.
On a day when it recorded its highest-ever quarterly profits, New York-based Citigroup said it will exit the retail business in India and 12 other countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, and west Asia.
“While the other 13 markets have excellent businesses, we don’t have the scale we need to compete,” Citigroup’s global CEO Jane Fraser said yesterday (April 15). “We believe our capital, investment dollars, and other resources are better deployed against higher returning opportunities in wealth management and our institutional businesses in Asia.”
This is certainly true for India where Citibank has struggled to get a bigger share of the retail banking industry. The majority of the bank’s profits from India in the financial year 2020 came from other income such as brokerage and commission.
Citibank India retail banking
Citigroup, which has been operational in India since 1902, did not explain what will happen to its existing business in these countries. Some media reports, however, are speculating the bank will look to sell its consumer business, including the lucrative credit card segment.
Either way, the bank’s operations in India, including bank accounts, fixed deposits, and credit cards won’t be impacted. Citibank has also hinted there won’t be any possible layoff and closure of physical branches in the countries it is exiting.
“There is no immediate change to our operations and no immediate impact to our colleagues as a result of this announcement. In the interim, we will continue to serve our clients with the same care, empathy, and dedication that we do today,” said Ashu Khullar, CEO, Citi India.
In India, Citibank currently has 35 branches with 19,235 employees. It has a sizeable business with a balance sheet of Rs2.18 lakh crore ($29 billion). It has loans and deposits worth Rs66,507 crore and Rs1.57 lakh crore, respectively. The bank has around 3 million retail customers, and 2.2 million credit card users. It was one of the pioneers in popularising credit cards in India and today accounts for 6% of the market share.
Citibank’s exit from the retail business comes at a time when Indian lenders are looking to scale up in this segment. With businesses shying away from taking loans for expanding their capacity amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Indian banks are focusing on the retail customers to expand their balance sheet.
Also, retail loans are considered less risky compared to corporate loans because of their relatively smaller size. At the same time, they have higher margins compared to corporate loans.
Citi isn’t the first foreign bank to exit or downsize in India. Many foreign banks including Barclays, HSBC, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch have either shut shop or scaled down their operations in India due to high capital requirements and costs.
US retailers have long been competing with one another for workers in a high-turnover industry. What’s new is that the gig economy—steering more into delivery—is joining the competition for labor, and increasingly so over the course of the pandemic. Consider DoorDash, the food delivery company. Data from ZipRecruiter shows that the number of job postings for DoorDash in March 2021 was 8,550% higher than in March 2020.
The scramble for labor has been testing even the largest retail chains, which are responding with better pay and schedules. In February, Costco announced increasing its minimum wage to $16 an hour, pulling ahead of rivals like Amazon, Target, and Best Buy. And Walmart announced on April 14 that it will convert thousands of its part-time workers into full-time employees, a move that will give workers more consistent hours, while also giving Walmart more stability in staffing as its pickup and delivery business explodes.
Walmart, which employs about 1.6 million people in the United States and 2.3 million worldwide, says it will have 100,000 more full-time US positions than it did five years ago. In a blog post, the retail giant noted that it expects two-thirds of its US hourly store roles to be full-time by the end of the fiscal year, up from 53% in 2016.
Retail jobs vs. gig work
The rise of the gig economy has had clear effects on retailers, particularly when it comes to delivery. The outsourcing of labor has worried union organizers, who argue that a job stocking shelves or working the checkout line at a supermarket, for example, can still provide a chance to move up the ladder, versus working as a grocery picker for a gig platform like Instacart.
Todd Crosby, an organizing director at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, told Quartz previously that having regular employees also means having workers who know where items are in the store and who can build relationships with customers. There are signs that retailers agree. Back in January, Instacart cut 1,900 jobs, in part because more grocers are choosing to use their own employees to pack or deliver online orders.
The rise of delivery and pickup options during the pandemic is further blurring the lines between aspects of retailing that used to be more neatly separated between stores and e-commerce. As Walmart noted in its blog post, “[o]ur growing pickup and delivery business calls for us to create more full-time job opportunities as our stores increasingly operate as both fulfillment centers and retail spaces.”
Last year, Walmart invested $5.6 billion in its e-commerce, technology, and supply chain operations, versus $77 million on new stores and store expansions.
Job openings, higher minimum pay rates
All around, there are signs that the US economy is opening back up and creating more competition for labor. The total number of job openings in the US increased to 7.4 million in February, up from 7.1 million in January.
The majority of working-age Americans have yet to be vaccinated and only 55% of US schools have reopened for in-person instruction, she says, with the latter making some parents unable to leave the home to work. Those situations will change as the vaccine rollout continues and the pandemic recedes.
Meanwhile, Uber, dealing with a labor shortage, announced last week that it will be spending $250 million on “driver stimulus” to encourage drivers to get back on the road, and Lyft this week bumped its driver referral bonus from $800 to $1,000.
A farm for maggots? It’s a tough sell for some. But not for Talash Hujibers, who decided to try her hand at insect farming when she saw the smattering of insect-protein companies popping up around Europe while at school there.
Hujibers grew up on a farm near Nairobi. After studying agribusiness in the Netherlands, she came home and dove headfirst into a swarm of flies, food waste, and fundraising—on a mission to produce enough animal feed to replace soy and fishmeal as both grow increasingly unsustainable.
Now 25, she employs 64 people, and is courting investors who may want to help her scale.
Hujiber’s firm, InsectiPro, is not the first to take this fly-feed idea and run with it, but it’s vying to be among the few to both scale and turn a profit. She expects to repay her $1.5 million investment by the end of this year, which would make her a rare success in a space that’s been hot for several years, but still racing to prove its concept.
Though Barclays has estimated the insect protein space will be worth $8 billion globally by 2030, its major players in regions like Europe have blown through capital and struggled to produce at scale. At least in Africa, InsectiPro’s traction might signal the industry’s future. With its conducive climate, welcoming regulatory environment, and urgent demand for new sources of animal feed protein, east Africa is uniquely poised to take the lead.
“Kenya’s climate and organized chaos allow the insects to thrive,” says Hujibers. “While there’s a bit of organization in waste management, the waste doesn’t have a place to go, so companies like InsectiPro can step in and fill a gap in a sustainable, circular way.”
At first, Hujibers thought she’d try fish farming. But when she learned how pricey the feed was, she got curious about alternatives. She caught wind of the Black Soldier Fly (BSF), whose larvae can be boiled, dried, and fed to fish and livestock. “How is this insect so magical?” she recalls thinking.
At least on paper, the model sounds too good to be true. The flies feed on old food scraps from local grocers and restaurants. Their eggs (the maggots) are then converted into protein-rich animal feed, which is cheaper and often healthier than traditional feeds like fishmeal and soy. Some firms also sell droppings from the maggots as fertilizer.
It’s a win-win-win: Organic waste gets diverted from landfills, while small-hold farmers get to cut costs while maintaining the nutrition requirements of their livestock. BSF also demands less water and arable land than other options. Soy farming has been linked to deforestation and land-grabbing, and overfishing has made fishmeal costly and unsustainable. As global food demand is projected to rise 70% by 2050, creating a protein shortage and food crisis in which east Africa is especially vulnerable, bringing BSF into the mix sounds like a no-brainer.
Of course, the reality is never that simple. Hujibers’ predecessors have learned the hard way that despite flies’ pesky ability to survive where we don’t want them to, rearing them at scale has proven tricky.
The industry’s first big player, AgriProtein, got its start in South Africa 10 years ago before relocating to the UK last year. It spent more than $135 million on R&D trying to figure out how to scale, and announced big plans in 2017 to partner with construction conglomerate Christof Industries to erect 100 new factories worldwide. Four years later, it’s in the process of selling its flagship facility in Cape Town and its UK operations are under administration, a form of insolvency proceedings, CEO Jason Drew confirmed.
Drew says the Cape Town R&D and production test facility “has been invaluable as we developed our large scale factories,” he explained, but “the site has come to the end of its usefulness for the group.” While two new sites in California and the Netherlands are complete, building timelines have been delayed, and the other 98 have not even been started.
Cobus Kotze was a founding team member of AgriProtein, and worked closely with Drew for almost 10 years. He now runs his own smaller BSF operation nearby in Cape Town. In his view, the African context lends itself to smaller-scale and lower-tech approaches. Given the low price of feed here, repaying massive capital expenditures on top-tier technologies for controlling the flies’ climate and purifying the waste they eat ultimately requires production on too unwieldy a scale. Among other things, it becomes hard to secure a steady stream of waste.
“There’s a real danger in the space of thinking the solution is just high-tech, higher-tech, more sophisticated,” Kotze says. “But there’s a balance there—you have to find the right technology that fits the price point of the market you’re producing in.”
That’s why Hujibers and a growing group of Kenyan BSF entrepreneurs are doing things a bit differently.
A kind climate
While AgriProtein and big European firms like France’s Ynsect and the UK’s Entocyle have raised and spent hundreds of millions honing optimal environments for their flies, scrappier Kenyan startups have a unique advantage: the flies can thrive in the country’s natural climate.
Rather than spending exorbitantly getting her climate just right, Hujibers has just two climate-controlled rooms and instead leans heavily on heat guns and sprinkler systems. She says even though this makes the flies a bit less efficient than they could be, the cost-savings are well worth it.
Other BSF pioneers in the region include Ecodudu, which recently received funding from the Frankfurt-based impact investing fund Greentec Capital Partners, and Victory Farms, the country’s largest producer of Tilapia fish, which launched a BSF pilot in May 2020 to try to cut costs on fish feed.
In addition to the conducive climate, a major driver of all this buzz around Nairobi has been the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), which was founded in 1970. Based just 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) outside the city, it has partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to spread the BSF gospel in the region by offering training and dispensing larvae. Most local BSF entrepreneurs got their start there, including both Hujibers and Laura Stanford, founder of The BUG Picture; the two used to share a greenhouse.
“We’d experiment together and learn from each other’s mistakes, which made it less lonely,” says Stanford, whose firm also champions the leaner, imperfect-environment approach. “And it was cool that it was another girl, since as we know the world is overrun with men in business.”
Indeed, BSF has been a unique catalyst for female entrepreneurship. According to Dr. Chrysantus Tanga, the entomologist leading INCIPE’s training program, 40% of the 11,600 farmers they’ve trained in the last three years have been women. As control of land and capital in Kenya still skews heavily male, and BSF requires less of both than other kinds of farming, it’s proven to be more accessible.
As a female entrepreneur, however, it’s notoriously tough to secure capital—and even tougher as one based in Africa—so Hujibers got her start by piggybacking off her father’s flower farm, Terrasol.
She now produces about 2-3 tons of feed per day and still can’t keep up with demand. And she’s out-producing the one local player that’s had no shortage of capital: her MIT-trained competitors over at Sanergy hope to hit 50 tons per month of BSF feed by the end of May, while she expects to be closer to 150 by that point.
This is in part because Sanergy comes to the world of BSF from a slightly different angle: rather than food scraps, their flies eat human poop. The company’s focus is on tackling urban sanitation by building low-cost toilets in the city’s slums and turning the waste into fertilizer—but they realized a few years in that rearing BSF would get them more bang for their buck: animal feed, with fertilizer as a byproduct.
Flush with cash from a cadre of impact investors like Echoing Green, Ashoka, the Gates Foundation, Novastar, and the Finnish and Dutch governments, they’ve recently attracted more commercially-minded funders Axa and Cornerstone. Much like AgriProtein, however, they face the high costs and challenges that come with working from dirtier wastes.
“The advantage in Kenya is that BSF work here is really tying into the government’s agenda on the circular economy,” says Sanergy CEO David Auerbach. Indeed, while regulations still hinder the industry’s growth in many states, Tanga and INCIPE have successfully engaged policymakers in approving the use of insect-based protein in animal feed in Kenya.
The future of fly feed
When thinking about the future of BSF, many in the Kenyan space look excitedly at Rwanda. With a more organized system for collecting waste, a warm climate, similarly friendly regulations and particularly pricey feed, it’s where Stanford has recently opted to relocate.
She hopes others join her in taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the industry. “What we need is just more people to get into BSF,” Stanford stresses. “I actually don’t have competition—there’s enough organic waste in the world to do this everywhere, and the demand for animal feed is so high that there’s enough room for everyone to do this.”
Tanga is working to establish a BSF Association to encourage farmers to learn from each other and make it easier to enter the space. He says his research suggests demand far exceeds the current volume being produced, with more than 80% of farmers willing to switch from fishmeal and soy over to BSF if given the choice.
As the sale of AgriProtein’s Cape Town factory appears to mark the firm’s departure from the continent, it could be the smaller, nimbler enterprises in east Africa that are the ones worth watching.
“I don’t know anyone who has entered this industry and left it – I think you fall in love with it,” says Stanford. “People get excited once they get over the whole idea of a maggot.”