MANY years’ experience as a South African mushroom farmer taught Mike Botha the nutritional benefits of this under-appreciated superfood, but he was always disappointed when there was no use for the stalks, which were often thrown away.

Fast forward to today and he is now based in the North-East, with a thriving business in Morton Park, Darlington, making a range of meat-free products from mushroom stalks.

Mr Botha set up Hooba Foods with Jay Croslegh in June 2016 and began experimenting to find the best use for oyster mushrooms’ huge woody stems.

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From his South African experiences, he knew there was a tremendous amount of potential in these stalks, which are not only free of fat, gluten and cholesterol, but full of protein and fibre.

He said: “The beauty of this mushroom product is its adaptability and low cost.

“Utilising the stalks is much cheaper than buying the obviously more attractive cap of the mushroom, as it is generally considered waste.

“In South Africa we called this bottom section the chog and Zulus actually refer to it as meat, or in their language, nyama, as it is so full of protein.

“They don’t discriminate between it and produce that comes from an animal.

“From what I understand I don’t think there is anyone else globally using oyster mushroom stalks as the basis for such a range of food products as our business.

“I don’t understand why, as it is brilliant and versatile ingredient to work with.

“We started off making sausage rolls and they are proving very popular with our wholesale and on-line customers.

“The unique blend of mushrooms and other ingredients creates a product which looks and tastes exactly like a meat one.

“In fact, as we can also make sausages with a skin on, same as a meat version, these products are helping us blaze a trail in the vegetarian food market.

“Our product range has now expanded to include a wide range of food such as burgers, mince, mushroom wellington and turkey crowns.

“However I have one challenge.

“The holy grail of my product innovation is pepperoni and bacon.

“When I have worked out how to make them I have cracked the most difficult product I can think of.”

Mr Botha thinks his products are timely with the growing public interest in healthy eating and concerns over eating too much red meat in particular.

Hooba Foods has an impressive list of major customers for its products, including Durham University, Newcastle University and the Royal Grammar School.

At this stage in its development, it was decided to supply the massive food service industry, rather than smaller retailers, so there was an automatically large market.

The business is currently in discussions with other major food suppliers who would be a good fit for these vegetarian products.

In the short-term, Mr Botha sees this route as being advantageous for a young company.

Traditionally, when products are sold into a supermarket they may take time to sell out and generate income, which comes at a time when it has already spent staff costs and other overheads to produce them.

Mr Botha and Jay also plan develop the business incrementally through gradually raising awareness through digital and food service industry channels.

The difference between this company and many other food producers is not just the imaginative use of mushroom stalks.

Mr Botha has set up a community interest company (CIC) to help disadvantaged people who live in the YMCA learn new skills and at the same contribute to his business by growing the mushrooms it needs.

He said: “We were looking into where we could grow mushrooms and at the same time became aware of the need for members of the community, such as young people out of paid employment and exoffenders, to get their lives on track.

“This led to our CIC being set up whereby they will collect waste coffee grounds from coffee shops which, mixed with cardboard, it makes perfect growing material for mushrooms.

“The coffee waste would normally go to landfill.

“But it is not just this sustainability that appealed to us.

“By encouraging these young people to go into the coffee shops to collect the grounds, they have to talk about healthy eating and our product.

“They learn how to represent a business and develop professional connections.

“This, in turn, will really give them confidence and skills to find permanent jobs.”

When the growing CIC is launched in April, the mushroom stalks will then be part of Hooba’s product base as well.

The caps are to be sold to local restaurants and also dried to be sold on the company’s website.

This project has supportfrom Jamie Sadler, whose social enterprise business Food Nation emphasises healthy cooking and eating.

He is arranging cookery sessions for the people who will be collecting the coffee grounds, so they can develop their skills further and understand the benefits of a balanced diet.

They will also be taught about Hooba Foods products and the advantages of eating less meat as well the benefits of low fat, high protein food.

The project plans to make use of disused urban spaces through the support of Virgin Trains, which is allowing the CIC to use vacant space under Newcastle Central Station to set up poly tunnels to grow their signature mushrooms.

Virgin Trains has space under many of the stations it operates from and it is exploring other possible space where Hooba Foods could grow its mushrooms.

At present the business is looking set to turnover £1.2m in the next 12 months with the potential to double this by the end of 2018, creating about 30 jobs.

Mr Botha is passionate about every aspect of his revolutionary business from the good it will for individuals, the support for people who need a helping hand and the planet as a whole.

He added: “The NHS recommends an adult eats no more than 70 grams of red or processed meat per day to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and even cancer.

“I am so pleased we can help people eat more healthily and play our own small part in reducing these risks.

“Also in terms of our global situation, animal agriculture consumes one third of all the planet’s fresh water, 45 per cent of the Earth’s land is used for farm animal grazing and 91 per cent of rainforest destruction is due to clearance for grazing land and growing crops for animal feed.

“Reducing the amount of meat consumed is not only good for us, it is good for the planet too.”

Susan Anderson, relationship manager at the North East England Chamber of Commerce said Hooba was a prime reflection of the ingenuity across the region’s business landscape.

She added: “This business is second-to-none.

“We are delighted they are part of our network and can share their own experience and success with other members so they can learn from it.”

But where did the business’ name come from?

Hooba (or Huba) actually means mushroom in Slovakian.