Coffee in, mushrooms out: This urban farmer in Lisbon is turning waste into produce

6 min read
12 Apr 2019

ntrepreneur Natan Jacquemin is passionate about making the most of local resources and minimizing waste. That’s why his company, NÃM, upcycles used coffee grounds collected from local cafes to cultivate organic oyster mushrooms.

Lisbon-based urban farm, NÃM, started just over a year ago based on a simple observation: our current way of producing is not sustainable.

“The current economic model of businesses do not take into account the environmental impact of producing and selling goods,” Natan tells Startup Guide. “Many negative externalities occur in the manufacturing of a product, such as soil damage and air and water pollution, and we just accept that that’s inevitable,” he adds.

Natan is a Belgian native who moved to Lisbon in 2016 to study business and economics at Catolica University. During his studies, he became fascinated by the principles of the “blue economy,” a model that encourages the sustainable use of ocean resources to conserve the environment, reduce waste and promote economic growth.

The current economic model of businesses do not take into account the environmental impact of producing and selling goods

After finishing university, Natan went to Britanny to complete a four-month internship in sustainable development with The ZERI Foundation, an initiative that uses the blue economy concept to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

“It was during my time as an intern that I constructed the whole philosophy behind NÃM and thought about how to use the power of business to do something good for the world,” says Natan.

A ‘cyclical’ process and business model

NÃM’s business model is based on a simple proposition: use waste with the goal of generating value. "For me, waste is a sleeping asset,” Natan says. “It's a free resource which you can use to create value both economically and environmentally.”

On a typical morning, Natan collects a tub brimming with used coffee grounds from local cafes and restaurants in the city of Lisbon and mixes them with mushroom seeds. He then puts this mixture in bags and hangs them in a cool, humidified room to begin the incubation process. This phase usually takes between three to four weeks.

After combining the used coffee ground with mushroom seeds, Natan puts this mixture in bags and hangs them in a cool, humidified room to begin the incubation process.

Once the mushrooms are fully grown, Natan sells them back to the same establishments that can use the veggies to create seasonal dishes.

“I use the waste from cafes to produce something that they can use, and then I make a profit from that transaction,” Natan explains. He then gives any leftover coffee used in the production of the mushrooms to local farmers to use as organic fertilizer.

In our current system of production – the so-called “linear economy” – raw materials are used to create products which are disposed of after their use has come to an end. NÃM, by comparison, exemplifies the circular economy in that it aims to maximize the use of resources and eradicate waste.

Natan says that NÃM’s business model replicates nature’s way of utilizing everything and wasting nothing. “In nature, everything is cyclical,” he explains. “There is no waste because everything that is produced is reused, and each process creates multiple benefits.”

Local, sustainable production in Lisbon and beyond

About one third of the food produced for human consumption worldwide gets lost or wasted every year, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. Much of this can be attributed to there being a lack of local food supply in cities across the world, according to Natan.

When buying a product in a supermarket, people are often unaware that their food has traveled a significant distance to get to its destination. Not only does this contribute to CO2 emissions, but it reduces the quality of goods by the time they arrive.

Urban farms like NÃM have been steadily cropping up in cities across the world in order to create sustainable production on a local level, says Natan. Crops can be grown year-round in optimal conditions using minimal resources.

For example, Parisian startup, Agricool, whose slogan is ‘we grow food where you live,’ sells local consumers strawberries grown in a vertical farming system in the city. Meanwhile, inFarm, a self-described ‘on demand farming service’ in Berlin has developed mini farming units that can be used to cultivate crops in supermarkets, restaurants or warehouses.

While Natan says that Lisbon is still far behind other countries when it comes to their sustainability measures, he wants to lead by example by showing people that there are “alternative ways to produce food in urban areas.”

NÃM also offers home growing kits that replicate Natan’s process of cultivating mushrooms in order to encourage people to try out his simple techniques. All one has to do is fill the tub with used coffee, mix in the seeds and await a harvest of fresh, organic mushrooms. “These growing kits help people reconnect with their food and understand where it comes from,” he adds.

Impact, profit and scale

Next on Natan’s agenda is finding the sweet spot between financially sustaining his business and still making a positive environmental impact. For that, he’ll need to scale up his production.  

“At the moment, NÃM is not financially sustainable. We are only just covering our costs because the size of our production is simply too small,” he says. “The more scale we have, the more impact we can create.”

NÃM is not financially sustainable... the more scale we have, the more impact we can create.

NÃM currently collects around 500 kilos of spent coffee ground per month and produces around 100 kilos of mushrooms. But Natan hopes to increase this output. As such, he is currently in the process of negotiating a partnership with Portuguese coffee roasting and packaging company, Delta Coffee.

Delta’s network of suppliers and cafes can provide NÃM with an abundant supply of spent coffee ground, according to Natan. As part of the plan for their potential partnership, Delta will deliver this resource to a warehouse located in Marvila, a small town just outside of Lisbon, where NÃM can harvest their mushrooms on a much larger scale.

Despite its modest size, NÃM is among the small businesses in Lisbon that want to keep large corporations like Delta Coffee accountable for their environmental impact. “The idea behind partnering with Delta is to help them develop a sustainability strategy that will enable them to become more efficient with waste,” says Natan.

With Delta Coffee's help, NÃM can increase the amount of mushrooms they produce.

On the question of how businesses can do their part in making a positive change in the world, Natan says that it all comes down to the way that companies create value.

He also realizes that impact companies cannot completely reject the traditional capitalist model. “Businesses need to be able to make money because money is what funds our ability to create impact,” Natan says.

At the very least, companies could donate a certain portion of their revenue “towards doing something good.”

Steps are being made by businesses to make a shift towards creating more sustainable impact, but Natan says that this can only happen incrementally.

"I think the change has to come from the inside of each person,” he says. “It's not really about the economy, or about the operations of a single business, but about what we, as humans, want to do on this earth.”

All photos: Eglė Duleckytė, Global Production Lead at Startup Guide