Trang Tran grew up in a working class community in Vietnam. She was the first person in her family to go to college, and the first to go abroad. She studied at Colorado State University and graduated with a MBA degree in May.
Living in the U.S. helped her flesh out an idea she’s had for awhile: A business growing and selling mushrooms. Her startup, called Fargreen, is now working with 10 Vietnamese farmers to cultivate oyster and paddy straw varieties. Tran and her partner Thuy Dao plan to sell the produce at food markets and specialty stores.
A couple of things are interesting about their model, which just won a major European prize. First, they train the farmers to use waste rice straw they would normally burn, causing widespread air pollution. Across the country, up to 50 million tons of rice straw goes up in smoke every year, leading to health problems and traffic accidents. By diverting some of the waste for mushroom farming, Fargreen hopes to reduce the smog.
“We have three or four months when the country is just completely covered in smoke,” Tran says. “People complain about it, but there’s no incentive for anyone to do anything about it.”
The second is that Fargreen’s method is closed-loop. It takes the post-mushroom waste and recycles it into fertilizer. Tran and Dao’s wider goal is to spur organic farming in their country, using their products and knowhow as a basis.
See Tran discuss the plan in the video below:
“There’s a gap in the Vietnamese market for high-quality trusted food,” Tran says. “Right now, we’re building a brand so people can know where the food comes from. That’s really new here. Most of the mushrooms you pick up in the market, you don’t where they come from.”
The partners have produced about 220 pounds of mushrooms so far, and diverted about a ton of straw. But it’s early days. The $250,000 prize from the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge will go towards a full processing facility, more trainings for the farmers, and, importantly, salaries for the founders.
There are other potential uses for the waste, including making biofuel and enriching the straw to make a food for animals. But Tran–who spent four years in international development before doing her MBA–argues they are either technologically immature or unscalable. Making mushrooms has the advantage of going with the grain of what farmers are already doing, and provides them with extra income.
Perhaps most impressively, Tran and Dao have started a business in a society where women typically take on traditional roles. “It is unusual because most people who are starting businesses are male,” she says. “If you are a woman you have a set schedule for your life. You get out of school then you have children, and that’s it. It’s never about following your dream and passion, because that’s a masculine thing.”
Now it’s a feminine thing, too.