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The mushroom-led revolution: how fungi will lead the way to nutritional self-sufficiency for all

Catalyze local communities’ fascination with mushrooms’ productivity to generalize soil-smart, intensive cultivation of protective foods

Photo of Laurent Demuynck
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Kigali Farms Ltd.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large company (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

n/a

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.kigalifarms.com

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Kigali City

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Rwanda

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The high hills of Rwanda: Northern, Western and Southern Provinces of Rwanda. They cover 15,123 km2. Arable land is about 7,800 km2.

What country is your selected Place located in?

Rwanda

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

I have devoted ten years of my life to this region. The highlands of Rwanda have a multitude of people with tiny or no landholdings, and even smaller prospects of a pay cheque, who must somehow extract enough food to support their families from that land. By the same token, the climate is ideal for low-tech oyster mushrooms cultivation. These mushrooms are highly nutritious, easily accepted in the diet, and require hardly any energy to cook. Bottom line, they offer by far the best ratio and cost of protein per square meter of anything these people can grow there. Think just over one hundred kilo per square meter…

Better still, the region grows a lot of crops that generate waste that can be fed to the mushrooms. We thus have the makings of a beautiful circular economy. While the region and its people are poor, they produce a vast hidden resource that, with the right knowledge, can be turned into the very nutrition they need and, bonus, the by-product of that process is organic compost, ripe for the very fields the agri-waste came from in the first place.

Even “more better”, as my kids would once have said, mushroom cultivation is pretty resilient to climate change, which is a looming existential threat for people depending on the fruit of their land for their survival.

 Finally, because its inhabitants are poor, the region has little for sale for even those who have money. Creating income is not enough. We must create the nutrition that the income will buy. The people of these regions are poor and willing to work hard to improve their lot, and they are often very generous to their community. What is missing is the infrastructure to convert that willingness to work into tangible results. Because the region’s climate is so ideally suited for oyster mushrooms, and these mushrooms so fit the socio-economic needs and the constraints of the region, I made it my mission to bring mushrooms to the people, as it were, and allow them to interact and improve their lives.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

6.8 million people live in our Provinces. The statistics are not pretty: households are less than 30% food secure, rates of child stunting are routinely around 40-50%, a quarter of  households are headed by females (i.e. widows or single moms), more than 80% of households own less than 0.5ha of land, their soil suffers from low fertility and high erosion.

But there is more. Early in the morning, colorful lines of women bring goods to market. You feel safe everywhere. In every home you enter, you are warmly welcomed. The 100+ people at our farms work very hard, learn fast and are very professional. The healthcare workers we partner with are generous, empathetic and knowledgeable.

At night next to the farm, there is always a small impromptu market, people mill around and someone usually plays music. Many kids are on the street, and many at the farm every time we hold an event. The kids seem to have fun with just about anything.

Once we asked one of these kids, a young teenager, what he was looking forward to in life. “Nothing, he said, there is nothing to do here.” Was his answer representative of the hopes of his fellows? It would not surprise me if many felt that way. These people are beautiful in their humanity, just like anyone in New York, London or Shanghai. But they do not have a lot to look forward to in life. Most of them will grasp opportunity with both hands, working hard all day for what may look as a pittance to a Westerner, but how much opportunity is there, realistically?

Agriculture is the main activity, out of necessity. People eat 2 or 3 things: in our region, potatoes, maize and beans. In others, rice, wheat and beans. Some tomatoes. Meat hardly ever, maybe twice a year. Mushrooms are popular. Their chewiness reminds people of meat. Cooking is mostly on charcoal. The diet is very unbalanced, hence the high malnutrition.

Women most often wear homespun dresses, made of Kitenge. Men and kids mostly wear second-hand outfits, often worn down. Older men often sport leather “cowboy” hats, very cool.  Despite being near the Equator, the 2,000m altitude means he weather in the hills can be humid and cold, so people dress warmly at night. Most houses are solid, of uncooked brick, with dirt floors. Grass roofs are not allowed, so it’s generally tin.

The culture is quite conservative. Women have more independence than most in Africa, but at home, the woman tends to be subservient. The stories I hear remind me of my father’s stories from 50 years ago, but with TV and internet, cultural norms are slowly changing. Entertainment opportunities are few so banana wine is popular. Most people in our region are Christian, many Adventists.

 Our insight: in our climate 0.5 ha, though small, is more than enough to nourish healthily a hard-working family of five and create surplus. Using surprisingly fertile fungi as an entry point, this region and its people can become nutrition self-sufficient.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

15123

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

6800000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The challenges are enormous, and simple to explain.

Employment opportunities are few and far between. Yet, people must eat. The population is large relative to the land, so the land per capita is small. Yet, people must make enough food from that land to survive. The population is growing, but the land is not, so the problem tends to worsen, unless off-farm jobs can be created. In fact, the land “shrinks”, because the soil loses vigor over time: hilly terrain, abundant rain and the conversion of forest to cultivated land cause strong erosion. The rivers run brown year round, exporting soil to Lake Victoria. Farmers can’t afford fertilizers, and don’t know much about composting. The soil suffers, so do the crops, and the people and future generations depending on them.

Farmers focus on the essentials, the sure bets, the crops that fill the stomach but don’t build a healthy body. Potatoes, maize, wheat, rice, beans. That’s baseline. The bulk of protein come from beans, who are quite good, but can’t take care of all needs. They lack some essential amino-acids (those the human body cannot produce by itself).  The main issue is lack of balance, and the result is malnutrition. Bodies and minds that do not develop to full potential, that are more susceptible to disease.

To these foundational issues, others are piled on. Policy sometimes mandates certain crops, resulting in less diversification, or unsuitable crops. Climate change brings unpredictability and diminishes yields that are very poor to begin with. Lack of agronomic knowledge only compounds the problems.

Chickens can’t be so easy to rear, because I hardly see any. Ditto rabbits or ducks. Goat is the most consumed meat, but not that cost-effective. Cows are culturally cherished, but a bad investment: poorly fed, they give little milk, and you hardly ever slaughter a cow for want of customers.

A major issue, never mentioned, is the lack of anything nutritious to buy in the villages. Development folks want income generation. But there is nothing to buy, should you be so lucky to have income. There is no butcher, no fish monger, no corner store filled with milk and cheese and a choice of yummy vegetables. People who work in cash crops are just as malnourished as others who till their own land.

So the challenge is prevalent malnutrition, borne from a lack of jobs, a dearth of land per capita, a growing number of households with no access to land at all, impoverished soils, climate change instability, a focus on crops with low nutritional value or cash crops, and a generally poor understanding of how best to turn soil into nutritious food. Then there is a resource distribution issue, meaning that in this world of scarcity, some are even poorer than others.

There were 10.5 million Rwandans when I arrived in 2010. There are 12.8 million now. 23 million are expected by 2050. Climate change is accelerating. Unless something changes, 2020 will look like a Golden Age to the people of 2050.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The development effort of the last 50 years is a failure. The next 30 years should at the very least allow people to eat healthily. The legendary “one acre” farm easily provides that. To us, a one-acre farm does not symbolize poverty, quite the opposite: it represents wealth and opportunity. So why all the malnutrition?

The challenge is not technical or technological or financial. The challenge is the enduring mirage of the “green” revolution of the 20th century and the intellectual biases it induced in political leadership worldwide. Let’s face it: too often chemical and mechanistic large-scale agriculture has lured farmers off the land, commodities into value chains and profits into suppliers’ and off-takers’ pockets.

The great opportunity is this: villagers own land, even small, are willing to work hard and science has accumulated a wealth of biological knowledge ripe for transfer. Less chemicals, less petrochemicals, more knowledge. We know what a healthy diet requires, we know a lot about crops, and appropriate technology to grow them, and climate and environment, we know the economics of food. This knowledge must be improved and localized, but there is a lot to start with. The obstacles are human-made in the shape of culture and policy, the political expression of culture.

So how do we overcome those obstacles? In one phrase: let fungi be our ambassadors!

Let’s harness the spectacular talent of fungi to digest hard-to-break-down molecules (like straw) and convert them into valuable outputs: nutritious food for humans and compost for the fields. Waste becomes food and soil. Fungi create a virtuous cycle. And they do so fast (mushrooms double in size every day) and productively (1 square meter yields 100+ kilos per year). They are harvested year-round, independent of seasons. This impresses and attracts farmers unused to such an explosive growth cycle. We perfected a cultivation cycle that makes mushrooms affordable even for very low-income households, while turning a small profit for micro-entrepreneurs.

The proof is in the pudding for all to see: you can make nutritious food, right where it’s needed, and cheaply enough that nearly everyone can afford it. Even better, the inputs are all local!

We elected mushrooms - locally called “meat of the poor” - as our ambassadors for protective foods due to their good fit to environment, socio-economic constraints and culture. Our other ambassadors and partners are Rwanda’s health care workers, deeply embedded in even the remotest community, replacing the outdated agronomic model of “teach and go” by a giant “show and tell”. By demonstrating how new practices can produce unheard of amounts of rich food, we build acceptance towards the next step of natural agriculture, soil management and intensive horticulture of protective foods. Policy will follow public acceptance and demand, and in 30 years this mushroom-led revolution will transform our Region’s food landscape to serve each farmer and villager.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

If there are going to be 12 million people on 15,000 square kilometers in 2050, we need to start thinking of ways to feed everybody, and feed them well.

Mushrooms, properly harnessed, do seem to provide a near-miraculous way of creating something out of nothing on no space at all. Within 15 months, we will have 1,000 micro-entrepreneurs on 50 plots of 0.03 hectare each, producing for 150,000 village consumers.

Over 30 years this will expand to the (by then) 12 million people in our Place: 2,000 mushroom growing villages (35 to 40,000 micro-entrepreneurs), each producing 12+ tons of mushrooms per year. Substrate production will be decentralized. Micro-entrepreneurs will earn a good living, and their neighbors will have a ready source of affordable nutritious food.

However, these mushroom growing villages will morph into much more than that. They are kernels of dynamic local enterprise. Villages bring together 20 to 25 people, mostly women, all willing participants. They understand nutrition, business basics, solidarity. They are an entry point for more learning, for more cooperative activity, and intergenerational interaction. They are suitable for people with life challenges, such as people with disabilities or teen mothers.

Using the uncannily fast growth and nutritional value of mushrooms as a magnet, the villages will be stepping stones to the teaching and implementation of natural agriculture, geared towards providing enough nutrition to nourish one individual on only 400 square meters. A healthy, balanced, caloric, nutritive, mostly vegetable based diet for millions. Our Region will be sufficient in protective foods for its people and a food exporter to the cities. Most people will work their own land, as today, but will reap multiples of today’s harvests. Financially strapped farmers producing meagre cash crops for middle men will be replaced by intensive gardeners enriching their soils and feeding their communities tasty, abundant, diverse and healthy crops.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

It is quite simple. Our Place counts 6.8 million people. There will be double as many in 2050. The food situation today is dire: people grow small numbers of low-value commodities with despairingly low yields. There is little understanding of how to manage the soil for maintenance and growth. Ag extension officers are many, but their knowledge is basic and motivation low. Most of the harvest goes to the cities. Growers are price takers. Much of the value goes to middle-men, retailers and transport costs. Commodity seeds are subsidized by government, but often delivered late or poorly suited for the regional conditions. Roads can be good, but the majority of the population lives far off them, and the costs of moving inputs or outputs is high.

The net result is a population of farmers that is not food-sufficient and often malnourished. With 2.6% annual growth rate and soils losing fertility, a food system status quo can only lead to a catastrophe.

The “green revolution” cocktail of chemicals and petro-chemicals and endless water irrigation is NOT the answer. It “worked” in the 20th century only by strip-mining and savaging soils built up over centuries or millenia. African soils are not ripe for “mining” and even if they were, it would buy you only a hundred years or so. Moreover, this green revolution worked hand in glove with the transfer of large populations of farmers to the industrial sector. There is no demand today nor in the next thirty years in our country for unskilled workers in factories manned by robots, and certainly not enough to absorb the large influx of population increase coming our way in the next 30 years.

If the green revolution won’t save us, and we’ll soon have 5 million more mouths to feed in our Place that can barely feed 7 million now, is it time to despair? No, not at all, quite to the contrary. By 2050, 12 million people will share 7,800 square kilometers of arable land. That’s 650 square meters per person. Properly cared for and intensively cultivated, 350 square meters suffice to feed one person a full diet of 2,000+ calories and all necessary nutrients. So there is twice as much land as will be required. The catch? This sort of agriculture requires a lot of labor input. So all these people on the land rather than in the city are starting to look like an asset, not a liability.

The missing ingredient of course is know-how. How do you convert millions of people from low-yield, soil-depleting, commodity-growing to high-intensity, high-labor, soil-building agriculture? We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we know where to start… Anyway, there is no choice: it would be irresponsible to mortgage the soil to gain a few decades of NPK-fueled (read petro-chemical fueled) harvests to sustain unsustainable populations, and at any rate there are no budgets to pay for this NPK.

So where do we start? I began my own journey ten years ago with two books: Paul Stamets’ “Mycelium running: how mushrooms can save the world” and Jacqueline Novogratz’s “The Blue Sweater”. Both inspired me immensely. Belief in one’s ability to effect change together with an understanding of what nature – and in this case fungi – can achieve for and with us, was greatly inspiring. And highly contagious. Ten years ago, at Kigali Farms, we started a “mushroom revolution”, finding ways to bring both income and nutrition to Rwanda’s countryside by ways of “mushroom micro-entrepreneurs”. I have seen the rapid growth and large harvests of oyster mushrooms induce enthusiasm and joy in many hundreds of small-scale farmers who can’t quite believe their eyes.  To produce 400 to 600 kilo of mushrooms per year on just 4 square meters is living proof that horizons can be broadened and that land can produce much more than tradition would have them believe.

It is time now for a “mushroom-led revolution”. Mushrooms alone are not the answer. Mushrooms, and the communities of committed growers that have sprung up with our mushroom villages can lead by example, be ambassadors of a more productive future, one based on awe of what the land, properly nurtured, can give a grower in return for her attention and care.

It all starts with economics. Our mushrooms would not inspire anyone if their cultivation weren’t economically fruitful. We invested years in figuring out the costs of growing and working out a value chain that would work for both us and the micro-entrepreneurs, and for selling oyster mushrooms to poor households. The same will be true of any natural agriculture concepts we introduce. The first step will be to figure out the economics of intensive horticulture, and probably to subsidize early adopters. This will be a process of continuous learning that will still be ongoing in 2050, on a path of continuous growth.

Culture is an essential pillar. Food is highly cultural. We will need extensive intercourse with  local communities to understand preferences and red flags, and ways to change their habits. We will want to discover and revive crops that were traditional one or two generations ago but were abandoned in the quest for modernist agriculture. That will make cultural, economic and environmental sense since long-established plants are likely to thrive and be more cost-effective and resilient, even though lack of commodity-value or ignorance by Western agronomists led to their abandonment. Production techniques are impacted by culture too. For example, human urine is a valuable fertilizer: each person excretes 10 gram of nitrogen each day, enough to fertilize one square meter. Whether squeamishness or common sense prevails is often a matter of culture. I suspect economics will win the day, and smart use of urine as fertilizer will be widespread in 2050.

Diet will be integral to the effort. We must meet at least minimum dietary requirements, for calories and nutrition. The combinations of foods that can be grown on a family plot and meet such requirements are endless, and it will be fascinating to cross these targets with local food preferences and local environmental and soil constraints. Surely idiosyncrasies will develop, maybe even unique terroirs. A cap of 350 square meters leaves room for some animal protein, such as chicken or eggs, or rabbits, and that will be up to individual preferences. We would be remiss not to try insect-based protein. Culture may allow it, or not. I doubt the Rwandans ever take to snails like the French, but thirty years is a long time. The point is that gardens can be immensely productive and provide a large variety of choices for healthy balanced diets, and the interplay of individual, community and regional differences will define what the food landscape looks like in 30 years.

Appropriate technology will play a role. This agriculture is labor-intensive, and there are clever tools that can lighten the work, reduce the hours and improve the economics. They will be made by local artisans, who will be valued community members. In most cases, economics will rule out electronic technology. Nor should there be much space for fossil-carbon based power tools: the small scale of the plots don’t justify it and why make the system dependent on a resource soon to be exhausted? There is room for high-tech in matters such as soil testing for example, or AI for learning best practices, and how to cross-fertilize knowledge. The work is done by the people, not the machine, but the people are informed by knowledge, which benefits from technology.

Policy can be disruptive or creative. Authorities understandably want the best for their population, so people’s representatives must be involved early on. Their concern for the wellbeing of the population is evident in the country. Authorities keenly solicit input from players seen to have honest intentions and a good ability to execute. Reducing malnutrition is a key focus of every local politician, and if our approach is demonstrably effective, it will be supported by proactive policy. In Rwanda this can have a great multiplier effect. For example, this might matter in the case of urine-based fertilizer on commercial crops.

The environment rules all food systems. Our approach is restorative by design: it recognizes that to feed 12 million people on less than 8,000 square kilometers, any agricultural approach will need to build soil, not mine it. Our approach will probably also enlarge the amount of arable land by including acreage not usable today. Any choice of diet or technology will have to meet the constraint of being environmentally “creative” and increase the long-term productive capacity of the food system. Conversely our system will be more resilient to climate change: healthier soil protects against droughts for example, and polyculture portfolios are inherently more resilient than monocultures. For people on the edge of poverty, reducing environmental risk, especially in the coming 30 years, is vital.

I could not be more optimistic. The sight of near-barren fields decorated by meagre maize stalks or insect-ridden bean leaves will soon be a distant memory. Our mushroom movement has shown that people get excited and motivated by novelty that brings results, and they are willing to work hard for their future. “Poor” people are rich in land and natural fertilizer and traditions that can be revived. Communities have a way of moving forward once momentum swings the right way. If people get excited by fast-growing mushrooms, I want to see them discover “Garden of Eden”-like plots with an abundance of food and low operating costs.

Thirty years is a good runway to bring massive change. Ten years ago I had no clue how to grow a mushroom. Now we harvest 4 ton every week, and our micro-entrepreneurs grow and sell another 4 ton in “markets” where no-one sold a single mushroom even two years ago. Let’s get to work on converting every square inch of arable land into a cornucopia of tasty nutritious food. It is very possible, the alternative is not an option.

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Attachments (2)

preparing oyster substrate.mp4

preparing oyster substrate, Byumba, Gicumbi District, Northern Province

gicumbi village.mp4

Gicumbi village, Northern Province

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Love what you guys are doing! Very inspirational.
Cobus

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