CAN a solar-powered mushroom farm positively affect food security and help lower food import bills? Rheanna Chen believes it can. So does the panel of judges at this year’s Vision 2 Reality Start Up Challenge Competition. Her innovative business plan ‘Slow Fungi’ took top prize at the regional competition.
Vision 2 Reality was a collaborative project between Nestlé Anglo Dutch Caribbean and Junior Achievement (JA) Jamaica. The goal of the project was to support budding entrepreneurs throughout the Caribbean. Chen, a Trinidadian living and working in Barbados, was among 279 participants from Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana and T&T.
Her business plan, Slow Fungi, has the potential to positively affect food security, vulnerable communities and environmental sustainability.
Slow Fungi will be the first solar-powered mushroom farm in Barbados, explained Chen. It will be a community-based model of agriculture providing for the growth, harvesting and sale of mushrooms to be used as food, medicine and regeneration.
“We want to revolutionise your experience with mushrooms, not only in Barbados but the wider Caribbean from spore to table. Our goal will be to support a circular economy which will include turning waste into a resource, harnessing the power of the sun, creating something that is delicious and supporting the local community by reducing the food import bill,” she said.
While mushrooms are produced in T&T, it is still an underdeveloped industry in Barbados where there are currently no commercial suppliers. So Chen saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between science and outreach. By growing top-quality edible mushroom varieties that are affordable and accessible for local and Caricom markets, Slow Fungi will also be providing training and employment opportunities as well as healthier options for those wanting to eat less meat, she said.
“If we start small, it has the potential to scale up to supply pizzerias, restaurants, hotels and even supermarkets. I think there are enormous profit margins that can be reinvested into the community in a way that is financially resilient and equitable—that would be the main goal,”she said.
Committed to sustainable development
Chen, who is also a lover of mushrooms, has observed similar social enterprise models during her travels to Japan, Indonesia and California. She sees the tremendous impact innovative business plans like Slow Fungi can have on communities. She especially wants to focus on women cooperatives through which models like Slow Fungi can train and provide employment.
“We can give them a source of income during these difficult times and support education, research and regenerative tourism,”she added.
There are many who, like Chen, are fascinated by the world of mycology (or fungi). At The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, there is a huge investment in mushroom science that is being led by Dr Duraisamy Saravanakumar.
Chen has had a lifelong commitment to sustainable development in the Caribbean and has combined critical thinking, capacity-building and communication skills to design inclusive spaces for food sovereignty, climate resilience and community empowerment. At the age of 20 she did a Semester at Sea (a multi-country study abroad programme on a ship) and spent five months across 12 countries studying sustainable development. Her goal was to examine first-hand real-life examples of how governments have supported farmers and producers around the world and how millennials such as herself and her colleagues could go about finding solutions to problems that exist. The programme was by far the most rewarding experience of her academic career.
The 29-year-old has a BSc with Honours in International Agricultural Development along with a Master’s in Gastronomy; World Food Cultures and Mobility. She once worked as the manager at Green Market and is currently the programme coordinator for the registered charity Slow Food Barbados which is part of Slow Food International, the world’s largest grassroots food movement that advocates for good, clean and fair food for all.
Tribute to Granny
The inspiration behind Slow Fungi is quite personal. This highly motivated young leader wanted to find a way to merge her passion for science with the culinary world. Chen grew up in Maraval, when she was four she lost her mother to leukaemia. Her grandmother, who passed away last year, helped to raise her as Chen’s father couldn’t do it alone.
“Being of a minority ethnicity, I’ve often struggled with what it means to be Chinese in the Caribbean. Since my grandma’s death, I’ve embraced my cultural heritage more. Mushrooms of all varieties; pot button, oyster, shiitake..you name it, are a key ingredient in Chinese cuisine. The world of mycology is a fusion of that which I devote my life to—regenerative agriculture and food systems. If Slow Fungi takes off, I would be paying tribute to my granny’s recipes while feeding the growing interest around mushrooms here in the Caribbean,” she said.
Human rights and environmental conservation have always been at the core of what Chen does. As a teen, she was involved in beach clean-ups and worked at centres for persons with physical and cognitive differences.
“At university, people spend a lot of time writing fancy research papers, but the real test is how you apply that in the real world—what programmes or businesses have you started or are helping to run that are challenging the current system we’re in that’s really dysfunctional? Now is the time that we millennials need to band together and think about the legacy we want to leave behind. We need to think about how we can make our work more meaningful and remove that selfish ego. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic- working together to share limited resources so that everyone benefits,” she said.
The speakers at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow have all emphasised that the time to take action is now. Although there are youths around the world with fantastic ideas, they lack the financial means to make it a reality, this is where governments and companies come in, said Chen.
“I was impressed with the way Nestlé ran the Vision 2 Reality competition. Even though not everyone won prizes, they were exposed to business training and mentorship,” she said. “Committing to change is different from actually doing something; everyone is a dreamer but the world needs more doers, less complaining and more solving. I think there needs to be that intentionality because people sometimes do things that aren’t always well thought out, so they need to merge big visions with proper execution.”