Growing mushrooms from coffee grounds? This is the idea behind Permafungi, a project of urban agriculture born in 2014 and with headquarters in Brussels, that has developed an innovative technique to produce mushrooms and compost from coffee grounds, creating at the same time sustainable jobs for low skilled people. Coffee grounds are collected by bike at the partners of the cooperative Permafungi in Brussels. Also the mushrooms, guaranteed fresh, are delivered by bike to shops and organic markets, to restaurants and other 0 km networks. In 2016 Permafungi produced 3 tons of mushrooms and recycled 16 tons of coffee grounds. The team of the cooperative travelled, always in 2016, 4000 km by bike. As of now the cooperative has created 9 new jobs.
We have met William Donck, production manager, Permafungi, on the occasion of the 2nd European day of social economy enterprises organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). Permafungi was presented as innovative and successful startup at European level.
How was the idea born?
At theoretical level we have been inspired by the concept of Blue Economy by Gunter Pauli. In practice, one of the co-founders of Permafungi was travelling to Thailand and he did a training in permaculture. This way we found out how we can use coffee grounds to do many things, not only to grow mushrooms, and that’s how we started to recycle coffee grounds.
What are your most important activities?
They can be summarized into “Eat, grow, learn”. “Eat” is our core business, the mushrooms, “grow” is enabling people to grow their own mushrooms. As a matter of fact we sell kits to grow mushrooms at home. Learn is informing people through workshops, visits, trainings about our topics.
What is Permafungi’s mission?
Our most important mission is to contribute to urban resilience, that is defined as: “The capacity of a system to absorb a troubling change and to reorganise by integrating this change, basically keeping the same function, the same structure, the same identity and the same capacities of reaction”. We contribute to urban resilience because when we produce fresh and organic food in the city we develop a local economy, we create sustainable jobs for low-skilled people, we reduce waste, and we minimise fossil fuels.
You define yourselves as social entrepreneurs: what does social enterprise mean to you?
We try to work with the four “P” of sustainable development: social impact (“People”), environmental impact (“Planet”), economic sustainability (“Prosperity”) and participatory governance. The greatest part of businesses concentrate on business itself, trying then to add some social and environmental aspects. Instead we work in the opposite direction: we try to maximise the social and environmental aspects and then try to demonstrate it is a sustainable business. We could also add a fifth “P”, that stands for partnership, because we work in relation with our clients, suppliers and competitors, and we have an open source attitude. Even if our technique is quite innovative we don’t try to keep it for ourselves, we spread it because the more we spread it the more people will start to grow mushrooms and we think this is a great thing. We work in the basement of a former industrial building. Basements in Brussels are neglected so they are cheap. This is good both from an economic and from an environmental point of view because basements have good temperatures and humidity, therefore we don’t have to heat during winter or to put air conditioning in the summer, and working there is good for the environment too.
What is the core of your business?
Circular economy: we start from coffee grounds and we produce mushrooms. The coffee that’s left is transformed by the mushrooms into compost, therefore we start with an urban waste and at the end we have two valuable products: mushrooms and compost. We have tried to add value to the loop. For instance last year we used compost to grow chicory. Nobody had thought about it before, we have and it is working. Therefore we have three products. Now we have an intern in architecture who is trying to produce biodegradable materials starting from mushrooms. She uses compost, then she adds a different type of mushrooms and she creates objects. The idea is to substitute plastic and materials that are not biodegradable.
What is your vision of the future of Permafungi?
We try to diversify as much as we can, producing different species of mushrooms, different vegetables, we also try to produce something that can not be eaten - biodegradable materials. We want to produce at local level, we also consume at local level. It is very important that we stay in Brussels. The idea is to spread the concept also in other cities but in Brussels we want to produce for Brussels’ market. We think that every city in the world should have its own factory and produce mushrooms because in every city there is coffee. As a matter of fact we don’t want to keep our secrets: people especially from France are coming to us and we teach them as much as we can so that they can open their own factory in their own city.
You create sustainable jobs for low skilled people…
We have as target people with low skills and we have a subsidy for them because they really have a specific profile, therefore we employ them, we give them training, not only regarding mushrooms, because we want them to also learn something else, so that when they leave Permafungi they will find a job more easily.