Mushrooms, a New Frontier Between Agritech and Foodtech

Mushrooms, a New Frontier Between Agritech and Foodtech 

Thought Leadership

Innovators like Below Farm demonstrate that, with the right product, technology, and communication strategy, even the most improbable products can entice UAE consumers and support the country’s food security objectives.

The UAE probably isn’t the place that you would think of first for mushroom farming, and yet... In Al Rahba, near Abu Dhabi, Below Farm has been growing a wide variety of mushrooms since 2021. While not the only ones to do so in the country, co-founder Liliana Slowinska, along with her two partners, husband and Technical Director Wojciech Slowinski and Managing Director Bronte Weir, are alone in growing both edible and medicinal mushrooms from seed to fruits.

“Normally, you find mushrooms where it’s cool, damp, and dark, and this country is obviously hot, sunny, and dry – the complete opposite. We’ve innovated to make that possible,” says Slowinska, who started working on the idea in 2019 after attending a wedding in Europe where a mushroom farm was exhibiting its speciality mushrooms. Combined with the global trend towards vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian diets, the seed was only waiting to be planted. The final push was, unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic, which not only gave the couple enough time to turn their idea into a proof of concept but also alerted them to the reality that 95% of all the food consumed in the UAE was imported. “For me, it was a call to action that we can increase food production in the country. We can have fresher produce with much higher nutritional value and whose source we know,” says Slowinska.

An Unexpectedly Good Fit

Indeed, “The UAE market is saturated with commodity mushrooms like white button mushrooms, from local farms that just import around 80% of the product, plant it, harvest it, pack it, and ship it,” explains Slowinska. “What made our business model different is that we grow mushrooms from the seed, the petri dish on which you cultivate the mushroom culture. As for speciality or exotic mushrooms – Lion’s Mane, Shiitake, King Oyster, etc. – they were imported, often in poor quality and shape because mushrooms are highly perishable and don’t transport well. It was a niche that no one was considering.”

Interestingly, the team’s research showed that the UAE market is ripe for mushrooms, in part because a large share of the population consists of expats inherently adventurous or at least familiar with this kind of food, and in part because mushrooms present a certain novelty for the local population. “In some cultures, people can be a bit put off by mushrooms but that’s not what we’ve experienced here. Emiratis are quite excited about mushrooms,” explains Slowinska. “The UAE is a very good place to launch innovative ingredients or products because people are very receptive.”

What’s more, by focusing on sustainable agriculture, food security, and circular economy, Below Farm dovetailed the UAE government’s own efforts and, “As the government keeps driving the agenda, more and more people will realise the benefits of locally grown [products],” says Slowinska.

Launching Below Farm still was a leap of faith for someone who came from a corporate background of fast-moving consumer goods. However, as Slowinska says, “Many people innovating in the Agritech or Foodtech space don’t have an agriculture background or come from a farming family. My [previous] scope of work had been predominantly project management and supply chain, which turned out to be quite critical to get [Below Farm] off the ground.” 

Mushroom Shapes and Forms

Today, 90% of the farm’s production is localised, using composted date palm leaves, waste coffee grounds, and waste wood; the team is even experimenting with brewery waste from Abu Dhabi’s first microbrewery. The mushrooms are sold to retailers like Spinneys, Waitrose, and Kibsons, to restaurants via a distributor, and directly to consumers via the farm’s website. “We’re currently producing approximately 1.5 metric tonnes of fresh mushrooms a month, and we’ve actually outgrown our facility, with more demand than we can supply,” says Slowinska.

Below Farm also launched its first non-produce mushroom products, including chips, soup, and a range of powders that can be used in cooking. And soon, it will unveil mushroom-based wellness products – mushroom bioactive compounds extracted and condensed to bring out their health benefits in their purest form. “Mushrooms have long been embedded in Chinese traditional medicine, but they’re now making waves globally. Science is kind of playing catch up to mushrooms’ benefits,” explains Slowinska, who adds that she and her team do a lot of educational work to inform consumers about mushrooms and their goodness. “We’re very active on social media, showcasing different ways to cook mushrooms; we’re also present at farmer’s markets, where people usually value organic and local food; and we do temporary exhibitions in schools,” she says. Another big project is the creation of a visitor centre for people to immerse themselves in the mushroom experience. “We get numerous requests to visit the farm, but a big challenge with mushroom farming is contamination by competing viruses, bacteria, or other fungi. We’re trying to find ways to respond and attract more attention to the cause with something unique, but there’s only so much three people can do,” Slowinska says.

“When we started in 2019, people thought we were crazy,” she recalls. “But since then, mushrooms just exploded and many startups all around the world are innovating. So, we’re no longer considered crazy; we’re considered visionary.” However, Below Farm will steer clear from some of the ways in which fungi uses are now being explored, as a base for plant-based meat for example. “We’re closely monitoring all the trends and developments in the mycelium space, and we’ve toyed with the idea of venturing out into these territories, but the one thing that we’ve learned on our entrepreneurial journey is that you have to stay focused and not fall victim to the shiny object syndrome,” concludes Slowinska.

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