Oyster Mushroom Production: Prosperity and Problems for a Small NGO in Tanzania
The desire for sustainable projects for non-government organisations and the need of reliable sources of income for small scale farmers is ever increasing in Tanzania and the ‘developing world’. Within international development ‘sustainability’ is a buzz-word often bandied round, with many communities and organisations slowly helping to transform traditional top-down development models to investing in more grass-roots, long-term, locally applicable solutions. Small scale income-generating businesses such as mushroom production may be one of many viable options for many rural Tanzanian communities gaining greater sustainability, and has captured the interest of the small NGO, Food Water Shelter (FWS), in Arusha, Northern Tanzania.
Inspired by possibilities demonstrated at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in Nairobi and the apparent simplicity and low tech requirements of growing mushrooms, FWS have been growing oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus spp). With a commitment to sustainability, appropriate technology and practising permaculture through the implementation of income-generating food production systems, aquaculture and animal husbandry, FWS have included oyster mushroom production into their existing systems.
The estimated number of known useful mushrooms, defined as edible and medicinal species, is thought to be around 2,300 globally. The mushroom has strong associations with particular cultures, for example in traditional Chinese medicine and has long been revered by humans for their nutritional and medicinal values. Traditionally mushrooms were wild-harvested and in the past century their commercial production has gained popularity for both their medicinal and nutritional value. The increased interest in the commercial growing of mushrooms highlights the recognition of their nutritional value as well as their potential for generating income through trade. The growth of mushrooms across the tropical and temperate zones is dominated by 12 species commonly grown for medicinal purposes and/or food. The commercial markets are dominated by three species: Agaricus bisporus (common button), Pleurotus spp. (oyster) and Letinula edodes (shiitake), which represent three quarters of mushrooms cultivated globally.
The small-scale production of mushrooms has been proposed by the FAO as a viable option for increasing incomes and enhancing livelihoods. The low input requirements of mushroom production give a solid case for not only helping to improve food security by increasing diversity, but may help reduce vulnerability to poverty by strengthening livelihoods as a quick fast yielding source of food and reliable source of income. Despite its theoretical simplicity, mushroom growing for FWS has provided an opportunity to learn and has brought challenges to help us develop our practices, and seek on-going training. As an expansion to FWS’ permaculture projects, in 2011 a pilot project was initiated by a permaculture volunteer. In two small, disused, adjoining concrete toilet cubicles measuring 1m2, two shelves were erected to house the mushrooms. Spore was acquired through JKUAT and the process of sterilising the substrate was begun, with fingers crossed. The first attempt was initiated during one of the coldest months of the year; July, when the coldest average temperature may reach 15°C (59°F) and despite having only 9 small bags filled with locally-sourced substrate impregnated with spores, the results were inspiring. Sold locally through our established vegetable markets in the first two months we generated 82,000tsh ($51 USD).
The initial success inspired FWS to pursue mushroom growing as a serious option for income generation. There was high demand amongst our existing customers in Arusha for such speciality mushrooms, with constant requests for a greater supply. At a relatively low costs, the trial was scaled up to continue support of business development, The cost of the project was low because of the minimum requirements for growing mushrooms – the place to grow them was an existing building converted only by installing shelves made on site with locally available materials, substrate was locally available and the only major cost was the acquisition of spore material. The only additional cost was to sponsor one of our farm workers to undergo training hosted by JKUAT in Nairobi. A proposed expansion to the development suggests expansion of the mushroom growing into larger premises in the form of a locally constructed earthen building – something similar to many houses made from locally available materials of a wooden frame and walls made from mud mixed with cow dung, water and ash. This traditional type building would not only provide a bigger space for expanding the mushroom growing but more suitable temperatures through the varying temperatures of the dry and wet seasons. Naturally made houses are notoriously better at withstanding high dry-season temperatures, providing regulated cool shade, whilst during the wet season they provide a greater degree of warmth than those houses made from concrete blocks and tin roofs.
Whilst waiting for funding to develop the project further, a second round of preparation took place. Substrate was once again methodically sterilised and prepared, whilst spore were obtained. However the success was not repeated. Despite initial disappointment, we tried again a third time, noticing that perhaps temperature changes were the critical factor in the success of growth. The third attempt brought significant results once more and renewed inspiration for the project to proceed. Through all of 2012, our success and failure of growing mushrooms has followed a boom-and-bust cycle, with temperature being the biggest influence, followed secondly by damage to the crop by rodents. The greatest success of growing mushrooms has been during the colder seasons of the year: July and December, with the greatest flurry of growth coming as the temperatures drop rapidly just before the onset of the rains.
FWS remain undeterred in oyster mushroom growing as a potentially successful income generating business, but it’s clear we have a lot more to learn. Research into other successful mushroom growing businesses in Uganda and Rwanda indicate that a reliable and consistent source of spore plays a significant role in the success of growth. The experience of our farm manager Mr. John Laizer, our resident expert in mushroom growing, indicates that we have not had a reliable source of spore. So our lessons in mushroom growing are driving us to support John to attend further training at JKUAT in 2013 and to find a reliable source for spore, as well as on-going monitoring of seasonal temperatures inside our allocated mushroom-growing space and determined repetition of the process.
If you’d like to learn more about permaculture and appropriate technologies in Tanzania, or to learn more about our mushroom growing program, you may be interested in signing up to one of FoodWaterShelter’s Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) courses; either in Kiswahili language in April, or English in June, 2013.