Two months after graduating from university, Nyawira Gitaka and Mbachia Ng’ethe took a bold step in starting a green business.
The start-up company, Mushroom Blue, would turn waste into nutritious food by growing mushrooms on the tonnes of coffee husks and pulp generated daily.
The idea was to kill three birds with one stone —reduce environmental degradation, fight hunger and create employment.
“The business model responds to our needs as entrepreneurs, the community’s needs as well as those of the environment,” said Mr Ng’ethe.
“With these three aspects together, you have the beginnings of something that makes a real impact in people’s lives.”
Mushrooms, which have high protein content, do not require irrigation, and can even be grown in urban areas known for scarcity of land, and can boost food security in a country that is food-deficient like Kenya.
However, the lack of technical skills has locked out many from growing mushrooms, making it a near-exclusive economic activity in Kenya.
Worst affected by this state of affairs are small-scale farmers, whose level of expertise due to limited training has lowered their gains from farming as a business.
Mushroom Blue plans to train farmers and offer technical support as well as market access.
The company envisions a future in which waste from many crops, not just coffee, will be turned into food that meets the needs of the masses.
In addition to providing food, Mushroom Blue’s business model offers a crucial service in environmental conservation.
Factories in Kenya’s coffee growing zones often tackle waste from the husking process.
Often, this waste is burned, releasing harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Farmers also use coffee husks as fertiliser.
However, in their raw form, the husks can be harmful to the environment, acidifying the soil and making it less suitable for farming.
Once used to grow mushrooms, the coffee waste turns into a substance that is rich in nutrients and organic content, making it an ideal fertiliser.
Mushroom Blue’s plan fits into Climate Innovation Centre’s (CIC) framework of supporting ideas that help to reduce the release of harmful substances into the atmosphere — getting its nod as one of the first incubatees in October 2012.
The centre works with start-ups by supporting the young entrepreneurs to research on best practices in mushroom farming.
Mushroom Blue got a CIC grant of $24,250 (Sh2 million) to fund its pilot phase.
The company will also be guided by experts on the technology throughout its development phases.
“We found out about CIC right at inception; the centre has been a godsend,” said Ms Gitaka.
Mushroom Blue is now ready to hit the ground and, through the CIC, is quantifying the cost of its pilot.
Once this takes off, the CIC will develop a training programme for growing and harvesting mushrooms.
Mushroom Blue says its “unique model,” helps farmers to diversify crops to include fungi.
The company says its model seeks to address the four main challenges that Kenyan mushroom farmers face, namely lack of skills and information, poor market access and low quality harvest.
While it takes between eight and 10 months for mushroom farmers to start reaping from the business, Mr Ng’ethe estimates that Shitake mushroom farmers can start getting returns in 2.5 months.
Additionally, Mushroom Blue is exploring partnerships with other CIC incubatees to replace firewood and charcoal that farmers use to sterilise substrate — the substance on which the mushrooms grow — with biogas or another form of renewable energy.
Mushroom Blue will inoculate substrate, the coffee waste, with the desired quality and quantity of mushroom spawn before delivering it to the farmers.
This will reduce the technical work that a farmer carries out as well as ensure that the eventual mushroom harvest is of high quality.
The company will buy the mushrooms from farmers, package them and add value before selling.
“A key part of the model’s sustainability is to ensure that profitability trickles down to the farmers,” said Ms Gitaka.
Although there are no major cultural taboos linked to mushroom consumption in Kenya, the crop is not used widely with most middle-class households opting for alternative sources of protein.
Mushroom Blue is counting on an aggressive public education campaign to turn the tides.
It is also banking on the fact that Kenya’s growing middle-class is increasingly seeking dietary solutions that will stem the prevalence of lifestyle diseases.
Research reveals that mushrooms have many health benefits, including weight management as well as boosting the immune system. The fungi also have medicinal qualities.
“Kenyans are leaning towards healthier diets. The middle class is hungry for healthy alternatives and this is where we will find our market,” said Mr Ng’ethe.
Mushroom Blue will initially target farmers in Kiambu County where there is abundant coffee waste before a nationwide rollout that should include waste from maize, rice and even sisal to grow mushrooms.
The company also plans to license its ideas to other entrepreneurs across the country to ensure that knowledge of mushroom cultivation spreads far and wide, thus helping to reduce Kenya’s perennial food shortage.
“We want to share the technology with other entrepreneurs around the country and mentor them in the development of their business,” said Mr Ng’ethe.