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Meet Australia’s maggot-farming CEO

Olympia Yarger is CEO of Goterra, pictured with some of Goterra's facilities and the farming process. Images: Goterra
Olympia Yarger is CEO of Goterra, pictured with some of Goterra's facilities and the farming process. Images: Goterra

For an environmentally-conscious company, Goterra sounds like an apt name: earthy but somehow exotic.

But that’s not what Goterra means.

“It's legitimately maggot Canberra.”

No, the CEO of the food waste start-up, Olympia Yarger, tells Yahoo Finance, the reasoning behind the name of one of Australia’s most innovative companies is far less romantic.

“It is the mash-up between maggot, ‘got’, and Canberra, ‘erra’. So ‘got’ - maggot, Canberra - ‘erra’. Goterra,” she said.

“Now that you look at it it's like, ‘Oh, it's Go Earth’. It seems plausible and real, but no, it's legitimately maggot Canberra.”

But if there’s one thing to sum up Yarger and Goterra, it would be this exact story: a no-nonsense approach to a complicated problem, and a result that just works.

Where did Goterra come from, and are maggots the future?

When Yarger was a child, she want to own a “big sheep farm”, ride horses and shear sheep, and went on to work with sheep and cattle before moving into marketing and digital.

“I could afford to become a maggot farmer though.”

The goal was always to come back to farming, but the expenses of agriculture were too much.

“I could afford to become a maggot farmer though.”

Today, Goterra is a closed-loop waste production and cattle feed producer. Essentially, waste like tea bags and kitchen scraps are fed into a 20 foot shipping container.

Inside, maggots feed on the waste, with the maggots’ waste becoming fertiliser and the insects themselves becoming feed.

“The use of insects as feed source is not new. Asian nations have been doing this for centuries. What is new, and what Goterra does differently, is think about how we can get robots to manage waste, or get insects to do jobs,” she said.

The machines monitor the heat of the interior, using metrics like this to judge when the insects are hungry or too hot or cold.

“For me, it was really about trying to figure out ways to farm insects within the challenges of a nation like ours, where our food waste is dispersed, it's regionally located. And those regions are very far away from other locations.

“The sheer distribution logistics of our nation made the idea of a big centralised waste management facility just completely off the table.”

The second part was finding a way to return value to the communities managing the waste.

This meant creating units that would work within the regions where the waste was made, and then returning the benefits - the fertiliser and feed - right back to those communities.

“That whole concept of decentralising waste management just became this really beautiful way to integrate in a way that I think Australia really needs, and I think that the rest of the world is looking for as well, in different ways,” Yarger said.

Where to next for Olympia Yarger?

Goterra is growing at a rapid pace - think 100 per cent week-on-week growth.

That comes with its own struggles, but Goterra is growing as quickly as is possible, with grand hopes on the horizon.

“We don't have hundreds and hundreds of tons of product to sell to farmers. But farmers are coming to us,” she said.

“Australia's suffering a terrible drought right now and feed is incredibly hard to find. If we could scale faster, we could help meet some of that demand that Australian farmers need right now, of affordable protein that can be used to improve or continue production.

“And so, like with anything, we started talking to different regional producers around Canberra and then we went to some events, talked to different people about what we do and they looked at the nutrient analysis of our products and were like, "I want it. Where is it?"

“Our job now, as a startup, is to actually scale so that we can meet that demand.”

In the future, Yarger envisions these waste modules at city council landfills, food manufacturing facilities and underneath shopping malls - everywhere that waste is created.

“Our job is to say we will not be wasting like this in the future, so where are we relevant and where do we belong?”

“We want to do it in a way that integrates, where we can create a service opportunity for waste collectors who their job is to go out and collect waste,” she continued.

“It's really hard to find a place to put food organics. And so we are now an opportunity for existing waste providers, because we don't want to collect waste. I don't want to collect waste, I don't want to pick it up. We just want to manage it.”

The idea is that it wouldn’t be any more difficult than current practices - just putting food waste into a different bin.

But the ultimate goal is that Goterra becomes a completely different beast: it doesn’t make sense for a company which has a purpose of reducing waste to expect a never-ending stream of waste to come from Australians.

“Our job is to say we will not be wasting like this in the future, so where are we relevant and where do we belong? We’re continuously looking for lower food waste, lower value things that we can manage so that we truly are part of a circular economy.”

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