The Role of Mushrooms in Sustainable Development

Mushroom cultivation and waste upcycling – how do they correlate?


Author: Ivanka Milenković – CEO of Ekofungi

The lack of provisions to satisfy basic human necessities is still one of the most critical challenges facing the world today, particularly in Africa. On the other hand, millions of tons of residual material denoted as waste are being discarded in the production chain of instant coffee. At the first glance, these two facts are seemingly unconnected. Is that really the case? No! Application of a circular model of economic development, about 200.000 tons of high-quality food could be produced from residue generated by coffee processing activities only.

The world’s struggle with the demand for reducing waste and building sustainable solutions in production systems inspired collaboration between Nestlé East and Southern Africa Region (ESAR) and Ekofungi (member of the IPANEMA consortium). ESAR and Ekofungi aim to standardize the cultivation of edible mushrooms on the instant coffee residual material. Ekofungi has already developed its technology for utilization of various types of waste for production of edible mushrooms through multi-year cooperation with Zero Emission Research and Initiative.

The aforementioned residual material is not a typical coffee by-product – it is the residue generated after brewing filter or espresso coffee, and is used in the urban farming context for growing cellulolytic types of mushrooms. This coffee processing by-product has a specific structure, moisture level and granulation, and has never been utilized in food production technology per se.

Figure 1. Incubation and fructification of the P.ostreatus HK35 on coffee processing by-product

Experimental proof-of-concept cultivation of Pleurotus ostreatus was performed on Ekofungi’s farm employing coffee residue delivered from South Africa. Figure 1 presents the production process of mushrooms and its evolution for six weeks. Results of the experiment are astonishing. Namely, each technological phase lasted as expected, and the cultivation cycle was realized at the optimal time. This confirms the possibility of using residue for mushroom cultivation on a medium-scale.

Establishing an experimental oyster mushroom farm with a training center in Harare is going to be the next step in accomplishing the goal – production of 2.500 tons of fresh mushrooms exploiting Nestlé’s instant coffee by-products. Construction and equipping the farm will be based on Ekofungi technology, tailored for the specific by-product and the climatic conditions of the location, and particular requirements – cost-effective manufacturing of high-quality food with minimal investment. As a special objective within this farm, Ekofungi’s another partner, The Future of Hope Foundation, will share their experience and educate women in the field of high-quality food production. In addition, ESAR will explore the use of cultivated mushrooms in well-known MAGGI products.

“It is a great pleasure for one small company to participate in the realization of the goals set by a company that employs more than 3.400 people in the East and Southern Africa Region. However, much higher satisfaction and challenge for us is to participate in the realization of Nestlé’s goal intended to promote decent employment and diversity. We also think that this action is a confirmation of Nestlé’s support for the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which will encourage the dignity and empowerment of the local community and, in particular, its women.

This project will become especially important in the context of COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it will have on local economies, which will have to be rebuilt.”, said MSc Ivanka Milenković, biologist, the founder of Ekofungi and its philosophy, and expert in mushroom technology.

IPANEMA contribution to improving mushroom production

Ekofungi company offers consulting and educational services branded as EkofungiSchool. Within the IPANEMA project, consortium members will have a chance to participate in Soft skills online training “Necessary skills for circular economy projects” based on EkofungiSchool and learn how to design business strategy for sustainability, incorporating hands-on learning and low-cost solutions. Further, Ekofungi experts’ knowledge and experience will help us to understand the most frequent challenge in mushroom technology – the spreading of fungal pathogens and to develop rapid, accurate and sensitive methods for their identification and detection.

As they like to say: “The key to success is an intimate understanding of fungi as living beings.”