Amid dismal crop yields due to recurring drought spells triggered by the impacts of climate change, farmers across Tanzania have switched to growing protein-rich oyster mushrooms to raise incomes, improve livelihoods, and protect forests.
Tanzania has one of the highest rates of deforestation in sub-Saharan Africa, with around 372,000 hectares of forests destroyed every year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Tall trees which prevent soil erosion, freshen air and water, and slow down impacts of climate change are being slashed as demand for wood surges, local analysts say.
While mushrooms have traditionally been eaten in different parts of Tanzania, most farmers picked them from the wild and did not grow them commercially.
The government and various non-profit organizations are now touting commercial production of oyster mushrooms, to increase incomes and curb deforestation.
Local farmers, who depend on rain-fed crop growing and charcoal burning, are learning new skills to grow environmentally friendly mushrooms.
At the Mahenge village in the Morogoro region, Elizabeth Kitama is busy stuffing rice husks mixed with mushroom spawns in small glass bottles.
Farmers equipped with transferable skills to grow fungi
Armed with transferable skills and knowledge, the 46-year-old former charcoal trader, methodically stifles soaked husks, heap and pack them in sterile bottles.
Unlike other growers who buy mushroom spawns from local suppliers, Kitama makes them herself.
“It pays more when you grow the spawns yourself from the raw-materials, instead of spending money on it,” she said.
Kitama has routinely used farm wastes from sorghum, millet, beans, peas, rice, and maize, as substrates for growing oyster mushrooms.
To remove unwanted organism and bacteria, she boils the materials in a closed container for 12 hours to sterilize it.
After the cooling process, Kitama fills the material in thin polyethylene bags.
“You must put them in the required ratio of the substrate,” she said.
According to Kitama, each bag should be filled with five kilograms substrate which is then mixed with 250 grams of spawn.
She then manually closes the plastic bags and hangs them in a darkened room for incubation.
Kitama says the mushrooms start sprouting after 28 to 35 days of inoculation and each plastic bag can yield a minimum of two kilograms of fresh oyster mushrooms ready for sale.
Harvested mushrooms can be dried and packed into plastic bags or sold fresh, she said.
Protein-rich oyster mushrooms a lucrative business
Tanzania is endowed with a rich diversity of wild edible mushrooms and people like to gather and sell them at the market and on roadside stalls. Over 60 edible mushroom species have been identified and are eaten as wild mushrooms.
Rich in vitamins, mushrooms are a valuable and relatively cheap source of proteins.
The east African country has the potential to produce large quantity of cultivated mushrooms due to the presence of agro residues — potential raw materials for growing mushrooms.
According to Tanzania Mushroom Growers Association, there are more than 10,000 mushroom growers in the country producing 1,920 tons of oyster mushrooms annually.
Wobbling on a maze of wooden stalls in a mud-walled shack, where young sprouts of oyster mushrooms lay, Magdalena Gwasuma owes much of her success to the edible fungi.
“I cannot complain. I get enough money for my family. I am no longer worried by the drought,” says Gwasuma.
The 65-year-old farmer at a swanky Nou forest of Babati district in Tanzania’s northern Manyara region has noticed that mushroom farming is the way forward to improve her livelihood.
“I grow mushroom whenever there’s not enough rain to sustain crops. I bet it’s far more profitable,” she said.
Many farmers in this region have repeatedly experienced dismal crop yields due to drought, partly caused by the impacts of climate change.
Like many farmers in the east African country, Gwasuma switched to oyster mushroom farming to raise her income and protect the environment.
With the help from agricultural experts from Farm Africa — a global charity striving to lift poor farmers from poverty — Gwasuma has made her mushroom farm a growing business, attracting customers to as far as Arusha city.
The multiple initiatives in line with Sustainable Development Goals to reduce poverty, hunger, create decent work, and foster economic growth, the east African country is trying to increase resilience against climate change.
Like other African countries, Tanzania is highly susceptible to the worsening impacts of climate change, notably droughts and floods caused by extreme weather conditions.
“When natural forests are chopped or set ablaze, their natural tendency to absorb carbon is halted, and the carbon stored in trees and other vegetation is released into the air, and fuel climate-change,” Henry Mahoo, a professor and climate change expert at Sokoine University of Agriculture.
With funding local and international organizations, more farmers have adopted oyster mushroom business to raise their incomes.
Forest ecosystems are ideal places to set up mushroom growing facilities, which need to be dark, warm, and moist, said Julius Kaiza, a government extension officer and agricultural expert in Morogoro.
Farmers get profits from growing protein-rich fungi due to its short production cycle, he said.
Kitama sells a kilo of mushrooms between 7,500 and 10,000 Tanzanian shillings (around $4) in the local market.
Efforts to promote protein-rich mushrooms intensified a decade ago due to the rising demand of the fungi for commercial and domestic consumption.
“Some people who thought the mushrooms are poisonous, have changed their mindset and are now enjoying its nutritional benefits” said Beatha Mamiro, a food researcher at Tanzania industrial research and Development organization.
Enlightening farmers to reap profit
To raise awareness of mushrooms as a food, Farm Africa organized regular food galas to show different mushroom dishes.
In 2019, the charity offered around 1,850 bottles of young spores, and a total of 22,145 kg of mushrooms were produced of which 10,390 kg were sold fresh and the rest dried.
Mushroom farming has helped improving the life of Kitama and her family.
She makes 525,000 shillings ($226) from growing mushrooms each year, which is her biggest source of income.
“I invest my money for future development. I have opened a small shop selling consumer goods,” she said.
Despite its success, the mushroom-growing push has some challenges, including lack of markets, the farmers said.
“We need better storage facilities and more outside markets, not just domestic ones,” according to Gwasuma.
Thomas Lymo, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Dar es Salaam, said mushrooms can be grown in small scale, at lower cost, and within a short time.
He said it is a practice that can be adopted by small-scale farmers to help them diversify incomes in dry season, when drought may challenge conventional farming, and reduce their vulnerability to adverse weather.
“The crop has the potential to improve livelihoods and increase incomes, and prevent destruction of forests” he added.