Words: Clifford Roberts Photography: Mia Truter
Farming is generally associated with the outdoors, but a fledgling snail farm in an industrial area near Rooihuiskraal, between Johannesburg and Pretoria, provides a glimpse into the possible future of food production.
The braai fire has often provided fertile ground for ideas. Between the flipping of chops, and drinks, big dreams are dreamt and big plans hatched. Most of them remain there – in the ash and next to bones stripped bare. Some, however, like this one by a group of friends and neighbours in Centurion, take flight.
“We were in the pool when all of a sudden Coenie [Espach] asked us if we’d come across snail farming,” recalls Christiaan Jooste. Neither he nor Stephan Pretorius had. That was November 2019.
“We contacted the Heliculture Farmers Association of South Africa (HFASA), an organisation working to expand the industry, and decided to import 500 snails to see how things pan out.”
“Stephan’s garage, where we started the ‘experiment’, very quickly became too small,” Christiaan laughs. But they were convinced that the sums would eventually make sense and that a serious business could be established if they continued to follow good advice. That was how CSC Heliculture was born, a name derived from the partners’ initials.
The onset of the worldwide pandemic indirectly helped to get the business on track. Christiaan’s work in the tourism industry had dried up and Stephan lost his job in the field of mechanical engineering due to cutbacks. The pair of them, along with Stephan’s wife, Chantelle, were ready to jump in and together they procured alternative premises in a nearby industrial park.
“We didn’t have land to farm and we were already operating under a roof in the garage, so there was no reason not to move into the former factory building,” says Stephan. As far as they know, CSC Heliculture is the only snail farm in South Africa that is run completely under roof.
“The owner of the building raised an eyebrow when he first heard of our plans. Our predecessor had been a tent manufacturer. But he allowed us to continue after we explained the high standards of hygiene required to make it a success.”
The building is 900m². Two tunnels of 300m² each were erected to serve as breeding rooms. A smaller, separate enclosure which is a few degrees warmer than the breeding room, houses the hatchery.
One of their first expenses, was climate control. A large, stainless steel tube pipes in air from a water-cooled system that regulates the temperature. Along with lighting, this helps to regulate the snails’ production cycles.
Sufficient air circulation is essential to counter carbon dioxide build-up from snail breath. This is achieved with the piped air and several constantly running household fans. Mother-in-law plants (Dracaena trifasciata) dot the area to assist in the pursuit of good air quality.
Stephan says that the Helix Aspersa Maxima snail family that they acquired typically occurs in Europe and is accustomed to lower temperatures. The snails are very sensitive to change which means that an increase of a few degrees will see them stress and die.
Helix Aspersa Maxima closely resembles the common brown snail of many South African gardens, but it is slightly larger and well suited for use in food or as an ingredient, as well as cosmetic products. Snail meat is a good source of protein in some cold meat products, among others.
It is especially the supply to the latter industries that places CSC Snail Farming under careful observation by various organisations monitoring hygiene and ethical standards, they explain.
The snails – currently around one million of them – are housed on structures that the team built themselves. These consist mainly of loose-hanging frames with one square metre of Correx board affixed to it. The frames are suspended on the structure in order to make optimal use of space – snails don’t need horizontal surfaces to thrive.
The structures have a floor of corrugated sheeting, which helps with the draining of waste and wastewater during cleaning.
The system was erected to eventually accommodate a capacity of 30 to 40 tons. The team believes that they’ll be at seven or eight tons by August this year and that they will reach 15 tons by February/March 2022.
“We supply HFASA which has a processing plant in White River from where they distribute to their customers,” says Christiaan.
He continues to explain that one of the industry’s biggest challenges, is to change people’s mindset. Snails are a good source of protein and are used for various products. Other than the meat, snail shells are ground and used as a source of calcium. Snail roe is a delicacy in some countries and consumed as “white caviar”.
The team is also investigating the possibility selling snail excrement, which is high in ammonia, for compost. To generate interest in children, they also plan to invite schools to visit the premises.
Another challenge for new farmers, is that they’re often caught off-guard by the pace of production. “When the snails start multiplying, you have to keep up,” says Stephan. “Many people are also put off when they hear that there’s no break in the production process. At the moment we take turns to take weekends off because we’re not yet ready to appoint staff.”
In terms of operations, they have to keep an eye on humidity, temperature and food – especially during the first few months of a snail’s lifespan. They admit that they’ve been lucky in terms of location – it appears the factory is on a similar power grid as a local hospital, so power outages have been few and far between.
The largest running cost has been the rental of the building. To establish the business cost them up to R5m. “There’s a Jojo tank filled with the tears we paid as school fees!” Christiaan adds.
The fact that they’re under a roof means that they have good control over pests such as ants, birds and beetles. The mortality rate of the snails before production runs at a very low 7%.
The original batch of snails was imported from Lithuania, but snail breeders are plentiful in countries such as Ireland, Greece, Morocco and Italy. One of the largest is situated in Austria. CSC Heliculture hopes to position itself as a local supplier because importation involves “a lot of time and paperwork”.
The snail production cycles are regulated so that they spend six weeks “on”, laying eggs, followed by two weeks of rest. They are kept awake for eight hours a day and sleep the rest of the time.
Breeders are retained because they are usually bigger and they lay more eggs – around 125 at a time – which declines as they age. Snails can live up to six years and they start producing from around four months. In the wild, they lay around 40 eggs at a time.
CSC Heliculture retains the larger snails while the rest are supplied to HFASA when they are around 4-5 months old.
The snails feed on a mixture prepared by a local manufacturer which is supplied in 100kg bags. It consists of a mixture of ground corn, calcium, lime and vitamins.
The enterprise uses around 200 litres of water per week to meet the snails’ drinking needs as well as a thorough cleaning of the facility. The water comes from the municipal supply and is treated with a UV light to remove any potential pathogens. “The building is 38 years old and the water pipes aren’t aren’t always as clean as we’d like them to be. We learnt that the hard way when snails suddenly started dying.”
On the breeding tables are plastic containers resembling pot plants. These are filled with cocopeat and this is where the snails, which are hermaphroditic, lay their eggs. They seek the pots out when they’re ready, dig a hole and lay their eggs. The containers are monitored daily and then removed once the snails are done laying.
Thereafter, the pots are taken to the hatchery where the roe is separated and put into clear containers where they rest until snails start to emerge. The hatchlings are then returned to the main breeding room where different age groups are kept apart.
Each breeding table covers some 160m² and accommodates around one ton of snails. They limit numbers to around 250 snails to a 1m² of Correx board.
Escaping snails was a problem which was solved later. Initially the team used nylon fibre threaded with an electrified wire traditionally used as portable fencing for livestock. But the snails often managed to cross parallel strands, causing a short in the system. “We’ve spent so much time crawling around looking for snails,” says Christiaan.
Now they use salt tablets which forms a reliable boundary which keeps the snails from wandering off.
Snail farming in South Africa – a wider picture
Globally snail farming is big in regions such as Europe where established markets exist, but it is still a teenager in South Africa.
In recent years there have been a number of recruitment initiatives and attempts to boost the industry under a single banner. The Heliculture Farmers Association of South Africa (HFASA), which was started in 2018, and the Snail Farmers South Africa Association have worked hard in this field.
The scale of snail farming in South Africa is unclear as not everyone is a member of an association. Producers include Stanley’s Snails in Benoni and Goshen Snail Farm in Wilderness. The HFASA says they have 45 active members across the country.
There’s still some way to go in order to establish a good market in South Africa. As with many new opportunities, there have been success stories and tales of people who started it, but then gave up. A lot of learning is still taking place. For newcomers it is always wise to proceed with caution; to do your homework, and gather information from various independent sources; to start small; and, most important of all, not to expect quick and easy returns.