Selling cockroaches is a hard, well, sell. But Exofood believes it can challenge the stigma attached to the insects with its futuristic, education-focused interior.

Surely we’ve all heard by now about the prospect of eating insects as a more sustainable protein source than animals. According to Statista, to produce one gram of protein, the amount of farmland required is 14 times greater for beef than for insects. When it comes to water usage, the difference is even greater: 2 litres for crickets against a staggering 112 litres for beef. As if the reduction in resources isn’t enough, insects are also extremely easy to cultivate.

For these reasons and more, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is endorsing their adoption, and in 2013 it published a book as a call to action. ‘To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today – there are nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide – and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated,’ reads the foreword of Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security. ‘We hope that it will help raise the profile of insects as sources of food and feed in national and international food agencies. We also hope that it attracts the attention of farmers, the media, the public at large and decision-makers in governments, multilateral and bilateral donor agencies, investment firms, research centres, aid agencies and the food and feed industries.’

And the world does seem to be listening. Statista published that the global market value of edible insects is expected to grow from about $406 million USD in 2018 to over $1.18 billion by 2023. In that time period, the North American market is expected to grow by 28 per cent, more than any other world region. ‘Although one would be hard pressed to find edible insects in the vast majority of U.S. grocery stores, this is expected to change in the coming years,’ states the corresponding report. ‘The market for flour, protein bars, and snacks made from insects is projected to reach 50 million dollars by 2023.’ There’s certainly already a tendency in this direction, with design-driven packaging dressing up insects as desirable snacks. A successful crowdfunding campaign helped a Brussels-based company to launch its Kriket protein bar, for example, whose wrappers give off a Memphis-hipster vibe.

Indeed, image and perception play crucial roles when it comes to converting mindsets – particularly those of the Western audience, which Andreas Ahrens has experienced first-hand in his role as director of the Disgusting Food Museum in the Swedish city of Malmö. ‘We often talk to visitors about insects and how most find them disgusting because they are not a step away from the actual animal,’ he says. ‘When we buy pork chops in the store, there is not a pig head next to it to remind us of the animal. In the same way, if we use insects in the form of flour to bake bread, make pasta, and protein shakes, it's much easier to eat them without us being reminded of the animal it came from.’

But what if we move beyond the immediate wrapping to the way the entire spatial experience surrounding insect consumption is packaged? It’s of course rather easy to imagine tucking into a shrimp covered in ants if the dish comes from the kitchen of Noma. But we’re talking about feeding the entire planet here, not just the select few who can afford to dine in one of the world’s best restaurants.

Changing the perception of insects in a more accessible space is the goal behind Exofood’s retail and lab space in Bangkok. The start-up was established by a small group of young forward thinkers, who want to bring smart and sustainable farming systems to big cities. We’ve already seen a number of proposals for vertical plant farming to overcome the issue of limited space in crowded metropolises, but Exofood decided to take the same approach to insect farming. The entrepreneurs believe that this business model will only become more and more important in light of COVID-19 and the increasing concerns surrounding food shortages.

Thailand, though, is not exactly a stranger to insect eating, with certain species such as grasshoppers, crickets and woodworms cited as relatively common fare. But Noppachai Akayapisud of Space+Craft, the design studio behind the Exofood space, says that it’s ‘still a niche market. People’s perception of insects is still very negative, particularly the younger generation.’ And while some insects are more popular to eat, Exofood mainly sells cockroaches – an even less appetizing prospect for most palates. Cockroaches, though, reportedly have a higher percentage of protein and double the amount of vitamin B12 than the oft-favoured cricket. That’s why Exofood wanted to challenge the stigma attached to cockroaches through a futuristic, education-focused interior – a first in Thailand, says Akayapisud. It’s a space not just for selling insects, but for investigating insect proteins and offering workshops related to food and insects.

Since cockroaches are typically deemed unsanitary, Space+Craft logically had to convey the opposite. Using a reduced material palette, the duo made cleanliness the design’s leitmotif. To ensure the space didn’t become too clinical, they worked with local construction materials and included fluorescent flourishes.

The time is certainly ripe for such a space, with the world witnessing an increased willingness to give insects a go. While a solid portion of would-be invertebrate eaters (22 per cent in the US, according to Statista) would still rather consume them in snack form, who knows what would happen if the dining or retail environment helped them feel more at ease? If it truly educated them on the benefits of insect eating for both our wellbeing and the planet’s? Perhaps not everyone will be sold, but if this protein source becomes a necessity and not a choice, we’ll simply have to overcome our gag reflexes the hard way.