Growing Mushrooms

Society & Culture | By Nyasha Mupaso, Microbiologist | 22 November 2014
PHOTO: © Baynham Goredema

Mushrooms are fungi and they have been around since creation and have been used as food and medicine for centuries, in other words mushroom growing is “fungi farming”. Mushroom growing is a business that is a bit far from conventional farming,  mushrooms are not plants neither are they animals but they are somewhere in between. Before I go further let me allay your fear if you have any; all cultivated mushrooms are not and can not turn poisonous in any way, they are 100% safe, anyone can grow mushrooms anywhere all year round thus it’s a great business compared to some seasonal crops.

In a country where people are struggling to make ends meet there are many schemes that promise to solve people’s financial challenges. There has been several pyramid schemes and many will come and they will certainly collapse as others.  I am not suggesting mushroom growing is “a miraculous business” but it is a good business that has been around for decades in Zimbabwe and delivering results if done very well. From mid 2013 the “sack potato production” system took the country by storm, like many sober minded people I knew it was going to fail. Others left mushroom growing for potato growing, I feel sorry for many of them now as the potato growing was a scam and most are back with mushrooms though devastated. Like many such ventures people just rush without thinking about the business and doing further research, I have written this to help you to think of mushroom growing as a solid alternative business venture available in Zimbabwe, or you are into mushroom growing already you may get your perspective changed, or perhaps you are looking for an alternative/supplementary income generating project. If you are already into horticulture or agriculture in general this is a great opportunity as it blends very well with other agricultural projects as you will see later. Perhaps you just need to grow mushrooms to supplement food at home and improve your diet or as a hobby.

Before the commercial cultivation of mushrooms, they were only picked in the wild as is still the case in Zimbabwe and everywhere in the world. Mushrooms are valued as food and medicine. Mushrooms were a preserve for royal families in other places in times past. Wild mushrooms in Zimbabwe and many Afrikan countries provides nutrition at a time when nutrition is at its lowest just after the dry season just as well when food is at its lowest, rains bring mushrooms and with it much joy for mainly families dwelling in the rural areas. In Zimbabwe many earn good income between December and March by selling wild mushrooms by the roadside. With commercial cultivation it’s a different story they can be grown all year round.

Several hundred tones of mushrooms are eaten in Zimbabwe from December to March which constitutes over ninety percent of annual production. This shows how low mushroom production is in Zimbabwe and how there is room for growth in this industry. Mushroom growing is highly profitable compared to many horticultural produce. High profitability is also enhanced by the use of waste material as I will explain later in the article. Mushrooms remain a high value crop for several reasons; mushrooms are a delicacy, its in short supply in Zimbabwe (with most imported from south Afrika), highly nutritious, healthy food and has medicinal properties.

Mushrooms require low working capital and are labour intensive (an opportunity to create employment). Many fail because they were told mushroom growing is highly profitable, they then fail to manage their costs of production. Once you have the growing rooms (which you don’t necessarily need to build), if you have existing structures you can simply convert such into mushroom growing rooms”. Since agricultural wastes are used working capital is very low, spawn “seed” will constitute the highest percentage on working capital. The mushroom growing industry is so diverse and one can specialise or diversify.  For instance you can be a spawn producer, produce one or several types (though button and oyster are the major types grown in Zimbabwe), one can do spawn as well as grow mushrooms, one can just do marketing, one can do one or more of the above and also include training
and consultancy. On growing one can specialize in dried mushrooms or only do fresh mushrooms or both.

Some people take the statement that mushrooms are in short supply to mean that when you grow you don’t need to market your produce, alas one has to work hard on marketing their produce as well as ensuring they meet the quality standards expected by the buyers.  

Most Zimbabweans are beginning to appreciate the value of eating healthy food just like other parts of the world.  That is a big influence for mushroom consumption in Zimbabwe. Another big driver for increased demand has been the growth in the tourism sector. This trend has continued since the country adopted the use of multi-currencies after the demise of the Zimbabwe dollar. Mushroom growing has many advantages compared to other horticultural produce; has quick returns, it does not require arable land and does not require large pieces of land, mushroom growing is a good candidate for urban farming. As the unemployment levels rise people in urban areas are looking at what they can do and its common knowledge that most have limited space which makes conventional farming not possible but with mushrooms it’s possible as just a small room can be used to grow mushrooms on a
small scale.

As I have alluded to earlier on, mushrooms are grown on wastes (both agricultural and industrial waste materials) like wheat straw, cotton seed hulls, maize stover and many plant residues which makes the working capital requirements very low. Generally fertilizers are not used in mushroom growing. For other types chicken manure is used in compost preparation. These agricultural wastes are usually burnt but these can easily be converted into mushrooms. Show me a business that converts waste into food and/or money and I will show you mushroom growing.

Mushroom growing is knowledge based and one needs time to read and take time learning, let me also say there is no substitute for experience, training and consultancy is good but it’s the experience that counts most.

Be wary of one day courses, most of these trainers do not give you support. Mushroom growing knowledge has been a closely guarded secret in Zimbabwe particular by former commercial farmers, things started changing around the nineties. I have written a lot on mushrooms in Zimbabwe for the past ten years on my and other blogs. Slowly there is now a lot on mushroom growing in Zimbabwe on the internet. If you decide to get training or help, make sure you get professional trainers preferably one who is also a grower, as there are many offering training yet they are not growers, hence you will end up getting theoretical training only.

The industry growth has had challenges in the past due to spawn supply “seed” challenges, this has since changed due to an abundance of local spawn production laboratories an opportunity anyone can take as I have suggested earlier. The local market remains largely unsatisfied as the shortage is covered by some imports from South Afrika. Shortages on the local market answers many who ask if there is an export market for mushrooms and why local producers are not exporting? Who will be interested in exporting when the local market always experiences shortages. The export market is wide and open, generally there is a shortage of mushrooms on the world market. Potential investors need to choose which type they want to grow and logistics is a big challenge, local growers they do not have capacity to do high volumes that are usually required by importers at any given time, pooling production is not yet viable. So for those who want to do huge investments the export market is wide open, for small scale growers the local market is the way to go.

The Zimbabwe mushroom industry is still in its infancy if we compare ourselves with other countries (outside Afrika, except South Afrika) this fact means there is big room for growth, if space allowed I would have written on how Zimbabwe imports dried mushrooms from Germany for our soup production industries.