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Tembusu Talks: An Interview With Mae (MAEKO)

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

Hello, could you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Hi, I am Mae Ooi, the co-founder of MAEKO. Chelsea and I founded MAEKO in 2011, and we started by focusing on the research and development of food composting. We subsequently successfully introduced our first composting machine in 2015. As I come from a biogenetic background, one of my main roles was to focus on the R&D-related aspects such as testing. This ensures that we can continue developing our microbes that better fulfil our customers’ needs. Apart from that, I am also the Director of Sales for MAEKO, a role in which I handle customer and community engagement.

I am also involved with community projects like AIESEC where we work to increase awareness on environmental topics and organise workshops to DIY house composting using bottles. I am passionate about sustainability, and I have recently graduated with a Masters in Sustainability Development Management at Sunway University!

What sparked your interest in the food waste management business?

This goes back to when Chelsea and I worked on an interior design project previously and we noticed that there weren’t responsible waste management systems in place. Because of this, we decided to work towards finding a solution to this problem. Initially, we sourced the microbes from overseas, but we soon realised this was not the most efficient way to proceed since it required a large space required and was very time-consuming. It was generally a very cumbersome process. After conducting further research, we decided to design our composting machine. It was a challenging time as Chelsea and I had no financial income during the trial process. But our hard work paid off and we successfully launched our first composting machine after four years. I then resigned from my previous company and fully dedicated myself to developing MAEKO. Throughout the years, we have gained much recognition from the public and the company is still growing.

Could you share some insights into the food waste problem in our society?

Malaysia generates 38,000 tonnes of domestic waste daily, among which 17,000 tonnes are made up of food waste. When you compare this to the 15,000 tonnes of daily food wastage in the past, we are observing a growing trend - and this number is only expected to grow further. Of these food waste, 44% came from households and 35% from the Industrial, Commercial, and Institutional (ICI) sector.

It is also important to understand that there is food waste generated within the food supply chain:

• Post-harvest losses owing to pest infection, physically less appealing, etc.

• Transportation and storage losses

• Food processing and retailer losses

• Post-consumer losses

How does MAEKO help in creating a circular economy?

Food waste is commonly sent to landfills, which we call the linear economy approach. They can be turned into bio-organic compost, a natural fertiliser. Apart from solid food waste, we also help wastewater treatment companies utilise microbes to reduce the formation of sludge that is created during the sewage treatment process.

Recently, we have started working with our partners to develop a lifetime monitoring system to track the type and amount of food waste in our composting machines. I believe this can help our customers better understand how much food waste they generate and subsequently improve their procurement plan.

In short, we provide solutions to turn food waste into resources, and hence creating a circular economy with zero food waste.

Check out how the composting machine works:

What differentiates MAEKO’s microbes from competitors?

Instead of using a generic culture medium, we isolate and culture a variety of microbes that help to remove fat, oil and grease, odour and mixed food waste, etc. in our gene bank. This gives us the flexibility of customising our microbial culture after conducting a thorough waste audit with our customers. Here’s an example of our previous project - we introduced a type of microbe that promotes and strengthens root growth of plants which the compost is beneficial to be used in hydroponic farming. Our expertise in this field and state-of-the-art technologies is what differentiates us from our competitors.

What are some of the benefits of using organic fertilisers made from compost compared to chemical fertilisers?

Chemical fertilisers are produced synthetically from inorganic materials and made such that the nutrients in the soil are readily available to plants. However, these nutrients get depleted very quickly after use. On the other hand, organic compost ‘feeds’ the soil and provides benefits beyond soil enhancement these increase disease protection and enhance the soil’s ability to retain water and nutrients.

Of course, we cannot completely phase out chemical fertilisers since organic fertiliser works slower. In the industry, organic compost is used as the base to enhance soil fertility or it is also used alternatingly between the use of chemical and organic fertiliser.

How can we play a part in helping to reduce food waste?

This is my favourite question! I think that we should observe our purchasing habits and storage of food. While doing grocery shopping, buy what you need instead of what you want. Proper planning prevents wastage. Don’t be a perfectionist and expect high cosmetic standards for fruits and vegetables as it contributes to retail waste. You can also keep your vegetable and fruits fresh by storing them in the designated refrigerator compartments and separating foods using different paper bags which can help to reduce premature spoilage.

It is unavoidable that materials such as fruit skin and bones become food waste but to combat this, we can simply use these as composting materials and reuse them for gardening. Alternately, you can give them to food composting companies. Let me emphasise again, the goal here is to have zero food waste going into landfills.

We notice you will be launching a new portable composter, The Munchbot™. Would you like to share more details about this exciting news with us?

We will be launching two products early next year that are suitable for domestic household use. First, a food waste dehydrator that can hold approximately 1kg food waste which is suitable for a household of four. You can dehydrate food waste such as crab and prawn shells to be used directly in your gardens or you can also store it before giving it to composting companies. If you would like to do composting at home, there is a new Munchbot™ composter with a 5kg capacity which is a simple and convenient solution for your composting needs.


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