How a small-scale farmer mushroomed his business

Mushroom farmer Peter Nyathi is on a mission to get more people, especially within the black community, to eat more mushrooms. He says SA is trailing far behind – in terms of consumption – relative to countries like Australia and the United States. Judging from the trend to substitute mushrooms for meat and that fungi is seen as a substitute for leather (as seen recently in a Stella McCartney fashion show) he has spotted a lucrative market. Nyathi’s Tropical Mushrooms employs 175 people and supplies 364 stores in Gauteng with mushrooms. He told BizNews where his love of mushrooms started. – Linda van Tilburg

Mushroom farmer Peter Nyathi on his passion for mushrooms:

 I studied agriculture and had an interest in it. When I got an opportunity to work on a mushroom farm, I realised that it is what I can do for the rest of my life because it takes a lot of time. It has got a wide scope in terms of applications. It actually makes me who I am as a person.

On his career at Denny and move into his own business:

I started working for the enterprise. It was my first time in the mushroom industry and I really enjoyed it. I was a trainee grower, worked my way up to senior grower, and ended up as manager. I looked into the possibility of my career with growing mushrooms and going out on my own. After discussions with my bosses, I felt that I could move out and start on my own. There were great opportunities for me within the company and I really progressed very fast. But still, I thought this could be an opportunity for me to do things for myself.

On his relationship with Shoprite/Checkers:

Yes, I knocked at their door three to four years prior to them becoming our customer. We kept going every year, just reminding them we are here. It finally happened in December 2016. They wanted someone, remembered us, and we came and immediately – the same month – we started supplying them. It was quite fantastic for us to be turned around on things. 25% of our output – which is currently around six to seven tons a month – and it has been growing. In terms of volume (what they take from us) they have become slightly bigger than any of our customers.

On the impact of Covid on his business:

It impacted us – especially the first hard lockdown – because the number of people in retail stores was reduced. We were actually left with 25% of our output going out – and you can’t keep it for more than three days. So we had to produce and take it to the dumping site. We have communities that we support, but they take very little because it’s a community – they can’t take a ton of mushrooms. We ended up throwing away a lot of mushrooms, which hurt our cash flow very badly.

The demand has returned, except for a few areas that are still impacted by the lockdown. But it is almost back to normal. We are also ramping up our operations.

On the demand for mushrooms in South Africa:

Demand is growing. We are not yet into the African population in terms of how much they buy. Some of them – especially the young graduates – are becoming more aware. At the moment, the country distributes more than 250 tons of mushrooms every week and it is still growing. It’s a bit expensive when you compare it to meats. Mushrooms cost slightly more than a kilo of pork, for instance. So, whenever consumers get money to buy goods, they buy meat instead of mushrooms. But with time – and also health issues – it makes people want to eat more mushrooms. There is quite a huge gap that can still be exploited.

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