David Yeung, CEO & Co-founder of Green Monday

COVID-19 IS ONE big reason why we need to look at plant-based proteins, say climate advocates. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), three out of every four new infectious diseases in people come from animals. And with CDC also reporting that 3 per cent of workers in US meat processing plants have tested positive for Covid-19, the need for alternative protein sources has never felt more urgent.

But while not everyone is convinced by the health benefits of plant-based meat (see Dining), the numbers speak for themselves. In 2019, McKinsey estimated that the global market for alternative protein has risen to about US$2.2 billion, against a global meat market of US$1.7 trillion. Jefferies estimates in its 2019 report that the alternative meat market could reach between US$90 billion and US$470 billion by 2040.

For Hong Kong-based social venture Green Monday, the numbers have also been consistently on the up. Co-founded by David Yeung in 2012 to address sustainability, it’s seen the number of vegans and flexitarians (semi-vegetarians) in Hong Kong rise from 23 per cent in 2014 to 34 per cent in 2020, partly due to the company’s efforts to promote plant-based foods. (An independent survey showed over 45 per cent of people in Hong Kong are cognisant of Green Monday’s causes.) 

Its plant-based meat substitute OmniMeat introduced in 2018 is now available in 10 countries and expanding to 10 more within the year. In Singapore, it is served in restaurants such as Tung Lok, Prive, Prego, Barossa and SPRMRKT, and sold in NTUC Fairprice and Sheng Siong. Revenue in 2019 is three-fold that of 2017, though Mr Yeung declines to reveal the actual figure. And this month, the company released two more products – OmniMeat Luncheon and OmniMeat Strip, which imitate luncheon meat and pork strips respectively.

A graduate of Columbia University, Mr Yeung was named Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the World Economic Forum and Schwab Foundation in 2018, while his company was named Company of the Year by PETA Asia in 2019.

About 34 per cent of the Hong Kong population now identify as vegan and flexitarians – which is substantial for a city that loves its meat. What has been Green Monday’s strategy in helping nudge people towards plant-based diets?   

Our Green Monday movement encourages everyone to go plant-based on Monday or any day of the week. We find that the best strategy is not to force people to become vegan instantly because that would just result in a pushback. From a strategic standpoint, we are talking about not just selling products, but selling change – we are trying to fundamentally change people and their lifelong habits and diets. So Green Monday creates a framework that a lot of people and a lot of companies and schools can follow. And many do. People need to understand why we need to change in the first place. Otherwise, why do we need to come up with a vegan meat? Who would eat it? So that’s Number One. Now Number Two is Green Common, which is our distribution network for meat alternatives. We’ve been a distributor for some years for brands such as Beyond Meat and Gardein, but they represent more Western foods. So this month, we launched the OmniMeat Luncheon and Strip, to add to our OmniMeat that’s already been out in the market since 2018. The local way of eating is critical to our efforts because we're talking about food and food is extremely culture-driven. Our products cater to the local Asian palate and give people a way to become vegan and flexitarian... Of course, going plant-based has also become more mainstream, just as yoga became mainstream to fitness. Fifteen years ago, people were not running as frequently as they are right now, and people were not going to the gym as frequently as they are now. So the plant-based movement also ties in with the wellness or fitness movement. 

What do you reckon the future of plant-based food to be? And what percentage of the foods we consume might be plant-based in 2030?

What I see is unbelievable momentum for plant-based food. The pandemic has exposed how fragile and unsustainable the meat industry is. First of all, we have a global pandemic because there are these viruses transmitted from animals to human beings. Historically, 75 per cent of all infectious diseases are transmitted from animals to human beings. That's Number One. And Number Two, with all the meat processing plants being shut down in the US, Australia and other countries, it shows the shortcomings of the meat/livestock industry and how outdated it is. It's just not the right system to support a world population of 8 billion people, which, by 2035, would be approximately 9 billion. So plant-based food is not just the future anymore. It is becoming the present for the sake of the world, for the sake of us. Some people say that by 2030, 10 per cent of the meats we consume will become plant-based and 90 per cent will be animal meat. I think that’s not a far-fetched assumption. If you look at the dairy market today, 13 to 14 per cent of the US market in 2019 was non-dairy compared to dairy. But 10 years ago, non-dairy was only 1 per cent of the market. So non-dairy actually grew almost 14 times in 10 years. So I see no reason why plant-based foods will not follow that trend. I think we will see hyper growth in this segment.

Very few social enterprises survive beyond a few years. What do you think has been key in making yours an extremely profitable one?

First of all, it is very difficult to juggle double or even triple bottom lines.The fact is, even aceing one bottom line is not easy. To have a normal business that can grow, be profitable and take care of employees and families is not easy. With a social enterprise, even though the goal is very noble, it is difficult because you're talking about double or triple levels of difficulty. You need to balance more things.There are things that we fundamentally cannot do or won't do if it violates our principles. For instance, we won't carry any GMO products and we will never develop products that have GMO. So balancing is always difficult… But we've been building this since 2012. At that time, there was no The Business Times interviewing us. There was no press con of any sort. There were just a few of us starting this grassroots movement. But the core people of the Green Monday team actually all come from the business sector. And when we started Green Monday, we were already in our 30s. We had already spent quite some time in the business sector. We could channel that business knowhow and experience into a company that has a social cause. And that’s what helped turn our social venture into a profitable one.

Green Monday also invests a lot of time and effort in social media. You’re a huge fan of social media yourself.

Yes, food is very social media driven, right? When you go onto Instagram, it is very hard to scroll five or 10 photos without seeing something related to food. The plant-based movement itself is a very youthful, Internet-savvy and influential group. These people are very willing to share because this is something they believe in. So because food itself is so viral, and the plant-based demographic is very active and vocal because they want to make a difference, social media has been very critical in helping us grow. Now, of course, there are particular strategies and ways to engage people even more. As I mentioned earlier, I'm a huge believer in communicating with people in a very local way. So we tailor our messages for people in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Japan, Korea and so on. We can’t just have a one-size-fits-all message. So these are all things that we continue to work on and get right.