Back in 2019, a few weeks before Wuhan became the centre of many people’s attention, Helsieni took part in a competition organised at Slush, the yearly conference for start-ups. The competition was organised by the cities of Helsinki (Newco) and Fukuoka, and was aimed at Japanese companies who want to expand to Europe, and at Finnish companies willing to expand to Asia.
After our successful presentation, the jury decided to award the prize to Helsieni: a round-trip ticket and a subsidy for office rent in Fukuoka.
Then came the sanitary restrictions. Lockdowns and closed borders. Months, years. We never abandoned the ambition though, and as soon as the restrictions were lifted enough (they were much stricter in Japan than what we’ve undergone in Finland), we grabbed the opportunity to enjoy the prize. I made a first visit for exploration, feasibility, and market research, in November 2022.
The trip has been fruitful, and on a personal note, an old dream came true. Perhaps, waiting for such a long time and the perspective of not being able to enjoy the award due to the Corona helped me to try to take the most out of it. But before going further in details about it, you may wonder: is that really in line with the values that Helsieni promotes ?
We advocate local business, sustainability, the principles of circular economy. So why are we going to Japan ?
First, Japan shares with Finland a passion for mushrooms. The oyster mushrooms are locally called hiratake and are widespread in Japanese cuisine. Besides, even if Japanese people don’t drink as much coffee as Finnish people (…actually almost nobody in the world drinks as much coffee as the Finns), Japan is still the biggest coffee consumer per capita in Asia.
That gives a solid basis to expand our concept, but that’s not enough.
Our plan is not to ship around our growkits to the other end of the world (and even less our mushrooms). At Helsieni, sustainability is not an empty word for greenwashing. It’s a daily concern that we constantly try to improve at all levels: production, deliveries, packaging, shipments.
Our plan is neither to tell Japanese people how to grow mushrooms; they know how to do that better than anyone else and that inspires humility.
What we want is precisely to expand Helsieni’s values.
Concretely it means that we want to do in Japan what we consider having been successful doing in Finland so far: helping more and more users every year (individuals and professionals) to use or reuse their own resources around them, waste or by-products, to grow mushrooms and thus secure their own local supply of natural delicious food.
We have accumulated, over the last 5 years, skills, experience, and best practices. Our know-how can now be spread, to eventually implement an urban farm in other cities.
Of course the modalities still need to be decided, and we remain flexible and agile to adapt to various situation, depending on the opportunities of partnerships with local organisations (public ones and local companies), depending also on who is going to join the project.
I have a clear vision of what to achieve and where we want to go. But the paths can be diverse. Therefore this initial trip has been the opportunity to explore the local reality of Japan in general and of Fukuoka in particular, to meet with potential stakeholders. For example, I could visit Hiyoriko, one hour drive away from the city, thanks to Michael Kato.
Hiyoriko has been a traditional shiitake farm for decades. They have recently diversified their activities with a restaurant located in refurbished shipping containers, with a show-room to visit the place where the mushrooms grow, and with many new derived products based on shiitake, sold online and in their shop. You can learn more from their beautiful website www.hiyoriko.co.jp .
We have also a clear strategy for the coming months about how to launch that project.
First we have started to introduce our most emblematic product, the starter kit, as a means to introduce Helsieni, our values, and get a foothold locally. The first feedback has been positive and an adapted version will be sold on the Japanese market.
Then we want to enrich our offer with other products for mushroom-growing, based on resources that can be found locally.
Once we turn really local, it will eventually allow us to settle an urban farm as we operate in Helsinki. Fukuoka has a lot to offer. To some extent the city shares a lot with Helsinki about its startup-friendly environment, and about the quality of life. But at the same time, geographically speaking, it’s also a gateway to Asia.
For all that, we will need funding and people. People are at the centre of our approach: a good idea is nothing without the right execution, and the execution relies on people. So people always come first. During my stay, I’ve tried to meet as many people as I could, from the mushroom world obviously, but also from the food industry in general, the restaurants, the cafés, from larger corporations and public institutions, the startup communities…
Here in Finland, I’m very honoured that Minae Tani-LaFleur is joining the project. Hopefully the team will soon increase in Japan too. Some people have expressed their interest to contribute at various levels. They have very different profiles, from students to seasoned investors, and professionals from different industries. The most important thing is sharing the same values. One of them being that everyone takes their responsibilities and the level of autonomy they wish. That’s also what makes Helsieni a working place that I enjoy so much.
Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to know more about the Japan project. Any suggestion is welcome, any question good to ask, go ahead.
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