After the ban on plastic bags, Peter Atana finds an innovative way to farm mushrooms and still run a lucrative business
Elukhambi on the outskirts of Kakamega Town is a quiet hamlet, with many people relying on farming maize and beans for sustenance.
Peter Atana sits on the veranda of his house in the village sipping fermented porridge from a brown calabash as he supervises two young men work on his mushroom project.
His ten acres lie fallow, unlike those of his neighbours, who are eagerly waiting to start harvesting their maize crop.
“This is my 10 acres,” the former banker says as he points to a structure that resembles a greenhouse next to his house.
“I grow mushroom in there and it is better than farming maize and beans on these ten acres.”
Atana, who started growing the crop this year, ploughed some Sh600,000, his retirement benefits, into the mushroom business, with a huge chunk of the cash going into erecting the mushroom house and a training centre on top of it.
Most farmers grow the crops in mud houses and in polythene bags, but the retiree is doing the business differently.
“This is a perfect agribusiness venture that I believe is under exploited in the country going by the benefits of mushrooms,” says Atana, who acquired the skills after attending a three-day training at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Juja.
In the same vein, he is now holding training workshops for young farmers in western Kenya, who have developed interest in mushroom farming.
To grow the edible fungi, the former banker uses simple, affordable and readily available materials, beginning with the greenhouse-like structure measuring 25x18 feet.
It is made of wood and covered with a black polythene liner, and has ventilation. The structure is covered completely to darken the inside environment after planting. After that it can be ventilated. Inside the mushroom house, he has constructed several wooden shelves, where he grows the crop in some 800 plastic bins.
“Usually, people grow mushrooms in polythene bags. But given that they have been banned from the market, I had to find an innovative way of doing it,” he tells Seeds of Gold.
In the bins that he reuses, he has stuffed bagasse, which is remains of cane stalks after the juice is extracted. The bagasse is freely available in all sugar factories in Kenya and him using it is part of cleaning the factory environment of the waste.
In the absence of bagasse, one can still use coffee or rice husks, dry banana leaves and groundnut shells, among other agricultural wastes.
“Since the spores do not need chlorophyll to germinate (as seeds do), they thrive on substances such as sawdust, grain, wooden plugs, straw, wood chips, or liquid for nourishment,” he offers.
Before introducing the spawn (mushroom seed) into the dustbins, he mixes the bagasse with crushed maize cobs and molasses, substances that encourage growth of fungi.
“Mushroom is a very sensitive crop. Therefore, I have to disinfect the bagasse by boiling it for a long time to destroy all the impurities.”
And after planting, the room must be kept clean, and people entering it must disinfect their feet.
Under normal circumstances, the mushroom house is usually kept very dark for 25 days after planting the spawn to enable proper germination.
“That is the reason why I had to cover the mushroom house with a thick black polythene liner.”
After germination, the containers in which the fungi are grown are watered daily, and the room must be kept very cool.
“I actually encourage people in this region to construct mushroom houses under trees so that the shades can keep the house cool.”
The farmer has also improvised a mushroom solar dryer, which are shelves made from ordinary wire mesh covered with a black liner to attract the heat from the sun.
“You can always work with what is readily available,” he says. “If you can’t construct a mushroom house like mine, you can always grow them in a grass thatched house with mud walling, as long as it is kept clean, and all procedures are followed.”
SELL IN EXPORT MARKETS
Harvesting starts after about a month since planting and he harvests at least 45kg of the fungi every two days for four months.
Atana, who grows the mushroom at different times to ensure he never lacks harvest, sells a kilo for Sh500 to traders from Nairobi, who travel to his farm, buy and ferry to major hotels in the capital and other towns, where mushroom is used to make soup or it is served with other foods.
Atana is optimistic that with the growing interest, especially from the youthful farmers, they will be able to start producing sufficient volumes to sell in the export market.
Ruth Oniang’o, a professor of nutrition, says mushrooms can be used to make very nutritious meals, and beyond that, the flavour is amazing.
“Mushrooms contain fibre and antioxidants, especially selenium, which protects the body against infections and are also said to have anti-cancer and cholesterol lowering properties,” says Prof Oniang’o.
Mushrooms are also a good source of protein, Vitamin C, folate, iron, zinc and manganese.
They also offer vitamins D and B6, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, potassium and copper.
However, there are several types of mushrooms, some which are extremely nutritious and tasty, while others are poisonous and can be fatal if consumed by humans.
On his farm, Atana grows the Oyster variety because it is easy to cultivate. The mushrooms are also beautiful because they come in a broad spectrum of colours.
“This is my new source of livelihood, and I believe many youths will see it as an opportunity and embrace mushroom farming as an agribusiness venture.”
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