Rwanda is a small country in East Africa with a population of 10 million people, 90% of whom are subsistence farmers and live on less than $2 per day. 50% of the population is under 18, and 44% of these children are chronically malnourished. This summer, I am working at Kigali Farms, a social enterprise founded by Laurent Demuynck, MBA ’95, to help change this.
We think that mushrooms are part of the solution, not only in Rwanda, but in developing countries around the world. Oyster mushrooms, the kind we grow, are rich in protein, fiber, iron, vitamins and minerals. They have almost as much protein as meat, but are much easier and cheaper to come by. Some studies have even found that they reduce the risk of cancer and boost the immune system, which helps AIDS sufferers better cope with their disease. In addition to their health benefits, mushrooms have yields per acre orders of magnitude higher than other crops; they grow year-round, with harvests every few days; and they require very little labor. They also grow indoors, which makes it easier for many families with very little land to grow mushrooms.
For years, the Rwandan government has been encouraging the mushroom cultivation and consumption as part of its campaign to end malnutrition. Because of this, many Rwandans are aware of the health benefits of mushrooms, but mushroom growing is still not very developed and there is a lack of reliable supply. The main obstacle has been the lack of good growing techniques. Mushrooms grow from mushroom spawn, which is produced in a lab, instead of from seeds, like most other agricultural goods in Rwanda. Instead of putting the spawn in the ground, we put it in a bag with agricultural waste, which we call substrate, like straw, coffee grounds or cotton seed hulls, and let it develop there before planting. Many groups have tried to produce these bags, but most have been unsuccessful or unprofitable.
Kigali Farms has transferred proven spawn and substrate technology from expert growers in Europe, and we currently produce high-quality substrate at our farm in Northern Rwanda. We also train growers on proper mushroom cultivation to help them get good yields. In the picture, you can see Chantal, the President of a women’s cooperative in Kigali, me, and her mushrooms. It was taken when our agronomist and I went on a site visit to advise the cooperative on their growing techniques. The cooperative grows their mushrooms in a house made of papyrus, banana leaves, bamboo and wood that they built especially for mushrooms, which you can see in the background.
The goal of Kigali Farms is to increase the availability of mushrooms to low-income households in Rwanda, and eventually across East Africa. Growing mushrooms creates a new income source for growers, which raises incomes in their communities. At the same time, consuming mushrooms increases their family’s nutritional intake. We sell our mushroom substrate bags to farmers across the country, help them grow them profitably, and, if needed, buy back their fresh mushrooms to sell to consumers. The company has been around since 2010, and is on a rapid growth trajectory to dramatically increase mushroom farming, and the consumption of mushrooms, in Rwanda.
This summer, I am in charge of sales and marketing. I am working on a plan to scale up mushroom substrate and fresh mushroom sales as we grow, and streamlining our current sales processes. I am also working on developing partnerships with NGOs who work in agriculture, whereby we train and provide substrate for the communities they serve. Finally, I am working on an initial plan to export our substrate and fresh and dried mushrooms to the East African Community. I’m using lessons from Strategy, Operations and Marketing to lay out robust processes, create a sales strategy and grow the market for mushrooms.
The UN reports that Rwanda is one of the few countries that is on track to hit its millennium development goals, which include reducing poverty rates, increasing primary school education rates, and improving child and maternal health. The country has achieved double-digit GDP growth over the past several years, and the government is working hard to promote education, health, and industry. I have witnessed firsthand the extensive government support of domestic businesses through forums, targeted conferences and advising. I can’t wait to see how Rwanda develops, and I’m excited to be a part of it.
-Katrina Benjamin, Intern at Kigali Farms