Agricultural researchers in Zambia are developing highly nutritious mushroom seeds for the country’s small farmers. The specialists hope that farmers who grow mushrooms will gain a healthy food source for the family as well as additional income. VOA English to Africa’s Danstan Kaunda reports that oyster mushrooms are found on rotting agricultural waste and on wood in forests, but now a project in Zambia is developing oyster mushroom seeds for distribution to farmers.
Lime and millet grains -- which act as food supplements – are used to help develop the seeds. Lime helps control acidity in the soil, which can kill germinating seeds. The grains are boiled, then mixed with lime in plastic bags before introducing mycelium-a vegetative part of mushroom fungus- to colonize the sterilized grains.
The project is led by the school of agricultural sciences at the University of Zambia in Lusaka. Kingsley Chipampe is a crop scientist there. He supports the idea of cultivating mushrooms on the farms of rural Zambians as both a crop, and as an inexpensive but healthy food for the farmer’s table.
Chipampe says oyster mushrooms have less protein than meat or fish, but nearly as much as maize or legumes, “As you know traditionally, growing mushrooms is done seasonally (during the warm summer season). Within three months people stop growing mushrooms, but for this project in which we are selling the seeds, they can be grown throughout the year from January to December, you can grow them at any time of the year.”
Researchers are also training what are called agro-field officers in Lusaka, and the Copperbelt in the north, on how to cultivate oyster mushrooms. Chipampe says, “What we need now is to train those people in far away places to make their own seeds instead of having them travel to the University of Zambia to get them.”
Oyster mushrooms are grown in mushroom houses -- similar to green houses -- made of local materials like wood, bamboo and clay. They are placed in hanging polyethylene plastic tubes or baskets containing compost or agricultural waste.
Among the main challenges to growing seeds is the acquisition of materials such as mycelium, lime and plastic -- all of which are expensive.
Also, taking the time for careful housing construction is important; improperly constructed mushroom houses can result in plants that are poorly formed or distorted, making them hard to sell.
In Zambia, the mushrooms are considered quite tasty. Housewives often stir-fry them with onions, cooking oil and salt – and serve them with local maize meal called "nshama."
Meanwhile, a women’s project called “Good Shepherds” is benefitting from the mushroom industry through training and supplying seeds.
Alice Shumba is a coordinator of the project based in Kabwata, Lusaka. She says, “[As soon as we harvest the mushroom], we sell it. On a [good] day we get more than 200,000 Zambian kwacha [about US$ 46] per day. We are able to help the sick and the orphaned [in the community.”] The taste is not much different from the natural ones found in the bush, [they are] so clean.”
The mushrooms, like tomatoes and other vegetables, make a good addition to other crops being raised to support families.