A mushrooming business in Tanzania
In many parts of Africa, edible fungi are an important food source but in the Hai district of northeast Tanzania, many community members have traditionally perceived mushrooms as poisonous. Despite the successful introduction of oyster mushrooms in neighbouring countries the crop, until a few years ago, was also considered an expensive luxury food for urban consumers and not of use to resource poor households.
And yet, despite these initial challenges, a successful project initiated in May 2005, led by the Horticultural Research Institute Tengeru (Horti-Tengeru) and supported by FARM-Africa's Maendeleo Agricultural Technology Fund (MATF), has resulted in almost 300 Hai farmers adopting oyster mushroom production in their homes.
Finding a way with fungi
The Kilimanjaro highlands were once a thriving banana and coffee growing region. But with falling world market prices for coffee and unreliable rain in the lowlands, farmers have struggled to earn an income and produce enough food. Households have become poorer and malnutrition amongst children has increased.
However, Hai farmers became gradually convinced of the value of cultivating and consuming oyster mushrooms after attending training and a series of cooking demonstrations held by Horti-Tengeru during 2005. The farmers use crop residues, such as rice and millet straw, banana leaves and maize husks as substrate, which are pasteurised with steam before being mixed with mushroom spawn - the culture required to grow the fungi.
Blue plastic bags are used to hold the inoculated substrate, which are suspended from ceilings or placed on racks in dark humid sheds made from local materials. The production cycle takes about 6-12 weeks, and the crop can be cultivated year-round.
The benefits of growing and selling mushrooms have enabled farmers to buy livestock (chickens and goats), pay school fees and household goods, and a number of farmers have invested in expanding their mushroom production. However, the benefits to the household have included improved nutrition. Consumption of animal protein is low in most households, even those with livestock. Oyster mushrooms - rich in protein - provide an affordable alternative. The mushrooms are also a good source of nutrients, including iron, manganese and vitamin B12. A number of households have now adopted a recommended preparation of mushroom stew, which is eaten with rice or a stiff porridge.
Mushroom growing involves all members of the community, even the old women. Younger group members help the older people by preparing the substrates (chopping and pasteuristation) and mixing the spawn collectively. Individuals are then given the spawned bags to take home. Farmer groups also share use of equipment, such as pasteurisation drums, drying trays or solar driers.
Poverty amongst some group members is also still a constraint as many lack space for the mushroom growing structures. However, farmers are encouraged to rent rooms and a revolving fund has been set up to allow them to buy their planting material. The majority have paid back at least half the loan within the first production cycle.
By mid 2006, one year after the introduction of the crop, growers were selling their mushrooms to local informal markets but also to hotels and supermarkets in Arusha and Moshi. By October 2006, Shoprite in Arusha had agreed to buy fresh and dried mushrooms for 3,000 Tanzanian shillings (US$ 2.5) per kg, and now buys 30 kg of fresh mushrooms a week.
Demand for oyster mushrooms in Hai and neighbouring districts currently exceeds supply, indicating potential for further growth. To maintain demand, mushroom quality, good packaging and consistent production will have to be sustained. However, farmer groups have demonstrated their innovativeness in finding a variety of ways to improve their products. One group, for example, has discovered a method for processing quality dry mushroom without using a solar drier. Another farmer processes his mushrooms by pickling.
Farmers are now training others in mushroom production. Recipes including mushroom stew, soup and samosas have been devised and are prepared during field days, and the technologies for processing the mushrooms for sale are also demonstrated. The Hai district council provides support by funding transport for extension staff to disseminate the mushroom technologies to farmers not yet involved in the project.
For established farmers the next step is to produce the mushrooms on a larger scale, and market collectively. With support from Horti-Tengeru, the farmers groups are gradually being transformed into business units through the formation and registration of mushroom savings and credit societies, which will be responsible for the effective marketing of mushroom products for the benefit of members.
Date published: May 2007
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