The magic of mushrooms

The BioHAB in Namibia, a collaborative effort by the Standard Bank Group, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT’s). Center for Bits and Atoms, and US-based architecture firm redhouse studio. Image credit: The Standard Bank Group.

06 May 2021 – An upliftment project in Namibia uses mushrooms to develop housing and food projects. If you are a plant biologist, mushrooms are surely one of the most interesting organisms to study. However, it does seem that the real magic of mushrooms has not been discovered yet.     

The Standard Bank Group, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Center for Bits and Atoms, and US-based architecture firm redhouse studio have partnered in an innovative social upliftment project in Namibia that uses fungal material from mushrooms to develop housing and food products.

Aimed at creating a sustainable economic and social ecosystem in Namibia, the BioHAB initiative uses mycelium – essentially the root system that produces mushrooms – to literally grow housing as well as food products for consumption or to generate income. It will also assist in efforts to curb bush encroachment, which negatively affects the agricultural sector.

With an experimental site on the outskirts of Windhoek already in place, BioHAB is leveraging methods pioneered by architect Chris Maurer for NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts programme, aimed at creating a habitat on Mars. These methods require very little water and no additional nutrients, with the mycelium thriving on the substrate of encroaching bush.

People who live in the BioHAB will be able to harvest mushrooms and fabricate a versatile mycelium-based, carbon-negative construction material. Once complete, BioHAB will also function as a training facility for MIT’s Label Free Research Group in the Center for Bits and Atoms, and for the international network of FabLabs. It will be open to Namibians seeking to learn new skills.

The ‘Mushroom House’ project is an extension of Standard Bank’s corporate social responsibility programme aimed at tackling homelessness. It is being supported by the bank’s ‘Buy a Brick’ initiative, which aims to assist 500,000 no-to-low-income Namibians living in informal settlements.

“We are embarking on a journey into new territory,” says Carolyn Kirksmith, Strategic Development Executive at Standard Bank Group. “We need to find innovative solutions that make the best use of scarce resources in new and sustainable ways that enrich and benefit local communities wherever possible.”

Work on BioHAB started in May 2019, shortly after Standard Bank Group became a sponsor of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms.

Despite setbacks due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the initiative is making progress. “While we still have much to do, we are excited and cautiously optimistic about BioHAB going forward,” Kirksmith says.

With an initial focus on food production, the BioHAB site was completed in 2020 and participants are ramping up their production of mushrooms for food. The construction of the first habitable mycelium structure will begin soon. The main structure will be made from waste from mushroom cultivation.

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