Written by Alex Gresty, edited by Ana Ivanus, Charlotte Pugsley and Caroline Babisz.

‘Umkele’ take their name from the Zulu word for the Puzzle Bush, a plant said to have magical properties. Like their namesake, Umkele are setting out to do something miraculous…

Who are they?

Founded in 2021, Umkele is a start-up developing novel, synthetic-biology based technologies to offer a sustainable alternative to current production practices.

With aspirations of tackling the packaging and textile industries; they eventually envisage that their process will be applicable to 9 of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

We are excited to introduce Umkele as part of the Science Entrepreneur Club’s (SEC’s) 2022 cohort of the Innovators Club. We recently caught up with their CEO, Stephen Mukuze, to talk about their past, present and future.

The first thing that was immediately clear when speaking to Stephen was his palpable passion and drive to contribute to the surge towards a greener society, based on his uniquely personal experiences, growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe.

“The effects of climate change are very real on a farm”

Stephen described the droughts that they endured one year, followed by floods the next, as well as the build-up of mountains of plastic pollution that severely affected their livestock.

After graduating with a Bachelors of Agriculture in 2019, Stephen became a volunteer research fellow at the National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe, where he honed his knowledge of synthetic biology. It was during this time that Umkele was born, and in 2021 Stephen launched the start-up with help from three other co-founders: Kenani Kenani (CIO), who has a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, alongside Petros Chigwechokha (CTO) and Stephen Opiyo (COO), who both have PhDs in biology. Together they make up Umkele, and their unique skill-sets enhance their understanding and ability to run the company. Stephen is currently completing a master’s in synthetic biology, as well as undertaking a course in business, to give Umkele the head start it deserves.

Why do they need to change?

Society needs to fight to reduce our dependency on petroleum-based goods and curb greenhouse gas emissions, in order to protect and maintain our planet. Nowadays, this issue has become even more prominent in the media and our urgency for change has been made evident to the masses like never before.

Umkele’s battle against unsustainable technologies has begun with a focus on producing alternative silks and plastic free packaging.

  • Silk production, according to the Higg Index, has the worst environmental impact of any textile. In fact, it uses 1000 tonnes of water to produce just one tonne of silk and one kWh of energy to dry one kilogram of silkworm cocoons. There is also the ethical considerations of using silk worm cocoons, as well as the alleged exploitation of child labour to keep companies’ production costs low [1].
  • Plastic pollution is perhaps a more widely acknowledged issue faced by human population. Petroleum-based plastics do not biodegrade, meaning that the effect of landfill sites on our landscape and in our oceans is only getting worse, with estimates showing that only 9% of plastics are recycled globally [2].
Landfill site that is visible from Co-founder and CIO, Kenani Kenani’s, home in Kenya. Waste is often burned rather than recycled due to infrastructure pressures and an inability to keep up with waste production.

Stephen has also recognised a further issue in tackling these industries; namely that there are ‘problems with the current solutions’

  • There are several companies investigating silk alternatives in the hope of creating greener textile commerce. However, these fabrics are often sourced from agricultural feedstock, requiring high production costs to manufacture a material that is not deemed as ‘luxury’ as traditional silk.
  • Bioplastic packaging alternatives come with their own suite of complications. Most bioplastic production involves the use of harsh chemicals and emits CO2 into the atmosphere, meaning that although the resulting product might be biodegradable, they are not an entirely ‘green’ alternative. In addition, many plastic-free packaging companies struggle to scale up, due to high production costs.
  • With the packaging and fashion industries facing an increasing pressure from governments to improve their green credentials, there has been an accelerated shift in interest towards sustainable production practices.

Umkele hope to fill this gap. Through their multi-purpose process, they have developed a carbon-negative silk alternative, with a low-cost, vegan production process, and a material that is high quality and machine washable. As well as their silk alternative, they have also produced a biodegradable, compostable, naturally-sourced bioplastic, using a variation of their silk production process.

So, how do they do it?

Excitingly, Umkele received the results from the prototype testing phase of their process just two days before our interview. Their process makes use of two abundant resources: light and carbon dioxide, as opposed to exploiting agricultural crop sources that cause competition with the food industry like other bio-production processes.  

Rather than plant-based sources, Umkele use a type of bacteria known as Cyanobacteria, which use photosynthesis to produce energy. During this process, cyanobacteria use carbon dioxide and sunlight to produce polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). PHAs are a class of polyesters produced by microorganisms, to create an energy and carbon store that can be extracted and utilised as a bioplastic. The most commercially viable PHA is polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), shown to be produced by cyanobacteria in the image below, which has the potential to overtake the widely used polypropylene in popularity due to its excellent material properties and green credentials [3].

However, one downfall of this bacterial process is the long timescales required to produce PHBs at its natural rate. As a result, Stephen and his team are also employing the use of a fast-growing and easily genetically modified bacteria, Escherichia coli (E. coli) work in conjunction with the cyanobacteria [4]. By implementing multiple types of bacteria, they have developed a process that speeds up production of PHB. As their process evolves and they continue to analyse prototype data, they hope to optimise the yield of polyester by manipulating their E. coli bacteria to increase the PHB output of the cyanobacteria.

PHB granules present in cyanobacteria [4]

What does the future hold for this company?

With several international prizes under their belt, including first place at both the Greentech Festival Bootcamp and the iGEM EPIC Hackathon, as well as being awarded the Illumina Accelerator Sequencing Grant in 2022; it’s safe to say that we can expect big things from Umkele.

Stephen’s dream is to ‘solve multiple problems with the same process’. Their technology is highly adaptable and can be altered to produce a diverse range of useful commodities. As well as the packaging and textiles industry, they envisage that their process will also enable access to pharmaceutical and food industries. At this stage they are determining which avenues of production are the most economically feasible. This aligns with their strict business strategy, and Stephen asserts that this is what will keep Umkele ahead of the competition. In 5 years’ time Stephen hopes that this ‘universal process’ will be in the pilot production stage, starting with their alternative silk material in order to amass the funding they need to branch out into different industries.

Umkele are tackling the global waste and pollution crisis in a way never seen before. Synthetic biology could well be the answer to climate change in a broader sense than ever imagined; providing multiple carbon-negative materials using one process: what’s not to love?


[1] Yong-Woo. L, ‘Silk reeling and testing manual’, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Rome, Chapter 10, 1999

[2] OECD, Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2022

[3] Markl, E., Grünbichler, H., Lackner, M., 'Cyanobacteria for PHB Bioplastics Production: A Review', in Y. K. Wong (ed.), Algae, IntechOpen, London, 2018

[4] Chen, Guo-Qiang. ChemInform Abstract: A Microbial Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) Based Bio- and Materials Industry. Chemical Society reviews. 38. 2434-46, 2009

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