Namibia, while a beautiful country with five distinct geographical areas, is also the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa. Water is scarce, and the dry climate contributes to limited vegetation, leading to a lack of firewood. As firewood is an important energy source in rural areas, it is a valued resource. Fire has many uses after all; it can, for example, be used for sterilization of mushroom substrates.
The NEPAD SANBio Mushroom Node hosted by Zero Emission Research Initiative at the University of Namibia, Windhoek, combats poverty and aims to improve livelihoods by promoting mushroom farming, which is among the priority areas for the Namibian Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry. Over the years they have trained numerous communities involving hundreds of people, providing additional income to the impoverished. Depending on the species in question, farmed mushrooms could be processed into e.g. health supplement capsules, soup powders, tea or chips. Most often they are, however, sold fresh. In Namibia, mushroom farming has also been used to help fund orphanages and engage disadvantaged youth.
It may not come as a surprise that growing mushrooms is not without its challenges. Contaminants preying on mushroom cultures lurk behind every corner, and substrates and equipment need to be properly sterilized – usually by using steam. This requires firewood which is often in short supply. Keeping the mushrooms growing and healthy also requires water, and proper growing conditions – for example, a dark, moist, relatively cold storage room if a dedicated mushroom house is not available. Furthermore, mushroom growing requires patience and persistence – there are no quick wins here.
This is true for Mrs Paulina Velskoen – a 73-year old pensioner who was trained in mushroom farming in 2008. She was persistent; while other participants in the communal project quit one by one, she kept on going. Now she is the only one left, supplying the local Spar with her oyster mushrooms which are the only ones available in town. From growing and packaging to selling, she does it all. She only wishes she had a car so she could go and gather the necessary firewood by herself. Thanks to her efforts and persistence, she now has water and electricity in her house and earns additional income to supplement her pension.
Another lady, Mrs Isabella Balzer working for Steps for Children runs an oyster mushroom farming project to help fund their operations in helping orphans and providing home-based care for people with HIV and AIDS etc. Whatever mushrooms they do not sell, they use for cooking as the mushrooms are extremely nutritious and have added health benefits.
As a third shining example, Mr Gebhard Eshumba was also trained by the mushroom node in mushroom cultivation. Working for the Ministry of Youth, for the past five years he has run a project training disadvantaged youngsters in oyster mushroom farming and related commercial activities so that they can advance themselves while earning money.
While small-scale farming provides additional income, operations should be grown to boost output and improve continuity of production. There is remarkably large demand for mushrooms in Namibia (and the Southern Africa region) but production and supply are sadly not keeping up with the demand. The fruit (or mushroom) would be ready for picking, if there only were more takers!
For more information on mushroom farming, contact the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry of Namibia or the NEPAD SANBio Mushroom node at ZERI.