Startup Spotlight: UAE-Based Below Farm's Locally Cultivated Mushrooms Aid The Country's Circular Economy Goals Produced with no pesticides or fertilizers, Below Farm uses fully automated controlled environment systems, adopting an indoor vertical farming technique that requires minimal space, and can be set up anywhere, effectively negating the need for arable land.
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This article is part of an ongoing series covering startups that have been a part of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund (MBRIF) accelerator program.
Temperatures that range between 15-24°C, wet and nutritive soil, and dark, cool conditions aren't necessarily the phrases one would choose to describe the landscapes of the UAE. But did you know these conditions are an absolute must when cultivating mushrooms? And yet, in a tale of achieving the seemingly impossible, Below Farm, an agritech company located in the capital city of Abu Dhabi, has found a way to grow mushrooms in the UAE all year round using local raw materials. "Established in 2021, with the first mushrooms harvested from the farm in Abu Dhabi in 2022, we have worked hard to localize the cultivation of mushrooms for arid climates," says Liliana Slowinska, co-founder and Business Development Director of Below Farm. "This requires a complex controlled environment system, which has been optimized for the hot, dry desert environment. But we have taken it one step further, growing on substrate materials -such as palm leaves from date farms- that are locally available."
Slowinska conceptualized the idea for Below Farm with her husband, Wojciech Slowinski (who is Below Farm's Technical Director), and they were soon joined by a third co-founder, Bronte Weir, with whom Slowinska had been acquainted with during her corporate career in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry. But the three co-founders' dynamic with mushroom farming goes way beyond a collectively created business idea. You see, as natives of Poland, all of them have been accustomed to the act of mushroom picking- a tradition that has been followed in the Slavic country for centuries, with the knowledge of particular species regularly passed from generation to generation. Combining such experiences with their individual expertise, the trio decided to target a niche within the UAE's agricultural sector.
"The UAE's focus on food security has created an enabling environment for startups, but there was no one operating in the mushroom space," says Weir, who is also Below Farm's Managing Director. "We saw the opportunity, and taking inspiration from our founders' home country of Poland, where mushroom foraging is a core part of the heritage, we set off on our journey to grow mushrooms in the desert."
It is thus with this sentiment that the vision for Below Farm took birth. "In its simplest form, Below Farm is a mushroom farm," Slowinski explains. "We grow fresh, edible mushrooms and sell them to restaurants, retailers, and direct to consumers via our online website. We also have an expanding range of value-added mushroom-related products: from mushroom chips to Lion's Mane mushroom powder, to home grow kits, and lots more to come. Our vision is to build and own the nascent mushroom category in the Middle East, that is booming in the rest of the world."
Produced with no pesticides or fertilizers, Below Farm uses fully automated controlled environment systems, adopting an indoor vertical farming technique that requires minimal space, and can be set up anywhere, effectively negating the need for arable land. "Mushrooms are nature's tool in the circular economy, they break down organic matter that otherwise wouldn't be recycled, and bring it back into the circle of life," Slowinska adds. "Our substrate is made from date palm leaves, a byproduct of the UAE's hundreds of millions of date trees- date farming accounts for 35% of the country's agriculture. We work with our customers and partners to explore their waste organic matter as potential materials to grow mushrooms on, while reducing the partner's waste to landfill."
Below Farm's commitment to fostering a circular economy has undoubtedly been well received in the UAE- after all, the country's government has even set up a Circular Economy Policy that offers a framework to determine the nation's approach to achieving sustainable governance as well as the ideal use of natural resources. "Our efforts have recently been recognized in the UAE Circular Economy Landscape Report published by the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, which highlights some of the amazing actions key stakeholders from both the public and private sectors have been doing in the UAE to support the country's transition to a circular economy," Slowinski elaborates. "We are also working with Expo City Dubai to collect spent coffee grounds from the cafe outlets on-site and incorporate it into our substrate, and we are always looking for new materials to upcycle into nutritious food."
Indeed, the search for new substrate materials appears to be a major driving factor in all the goals that the Below Farm team is working towards. "With circularity in mind, we are not only looking at upcycling inbound materials, but also making use of our own waste," Weir says. "Spent mushroom substrate is high in organic matter, making it desirable for use as a soil conditioner- we compost our spent substrate, and give it to local farms to improve soil quality. Additionally, we have plans to install a biogas reactor to supplement our more energy intensive production processes."
Below Farm's efforts to constantly improve its offering is what eventually led to its enrolment in the MBRIF Innovation Accelerator Program. "MBRIF is a prominent local platform that has been recommended to us by fellow entrepreneurs in the UAE ecosystem, and so the opportunity for the visibility, connections and mentorship that the program provides was impossible to ignore," Weir adds. Currently in the scaleup stage of its growth, Below Farm is stuck with "the 'good problem' of more demand versus supply," Slowinska says.
But, as it stands, the company's growth plans won't be limited to monetary-related metrics alone. "Founder-funded to date, the business is generating revenue, growing rapidly, reinvesting all profits into expanding the business," Slowinski says. "But our team of 11, working passionately to bring the mushrooming trend of fungi-based products to consumers in the Middle East, is also committed to educating people on the benefits mushrooms can have on their wellness as well as the wellbeing of the planet. In 2024, we plan to open the region's first mushroom experience and education center, where people can engage with the wonders that the fungi kingdom has to offer. From our home in the UAE, we are looking to scale across the Middle Eastern markets, harnessing our position as the go-to fungi experts!"