Kenya still imports most of the mushrooms it eats, despite rich potential to grow locally and high returns on initial investments. The problems, which are now seeing some small-scale farmers abandon the crop, lie in the quality, and, above all, the marketing. Once mushrooms are in full harvest, finding outlets for the volume is stymieing many a grower, fueling calls for greater local processing.
In Kenya, the two types of mushrooms with an established local market, are the oyster mushroom and the button mushroom. The oyster mushroom is cheap to grow, but hard to sell in volume, whereas the button requires a much larger investment, but then sells far better.
With Sh30, 000 and a little space, one can grow oyster mushrooms, said mushroom growing consultant Justus Wambua, the Manager of Biosafe Technologies. “These take a month to incubate and three months to harvest,” he said, and a 3 x 3 meter room can hold 1000 mushroom sets on small polythene bags.
Inspired by Far Eastern fashions, a local company has launched brands of Kenyan tea and coffee blended with the Reishi mushroom, pitching into a $4bn world market for the mushroom, which boosts immunity in AIDS sufferers and is filled with anti-oxidant health properties.
The move comes as part of an emerging trend from local processors towards developing value-added teas and coffees, and follows the striking success of similar beverages in the north American market, where Gano Cafe blends Reishi with Brazilian Coffee with now over 2 million customers in some 14 countries.
To make its new East African version of the drinks, Biosafe technologies is sourcing the Reisha from Kenyan farmers at Sh1800 per kg, drawing farmers out of Oyster mushrooms, where they had problems establishing a market, into supplying the new demand for the Reisha, which is far easier to package.
After the Oyster is harvested, it needs specialised packing and handling, costing Sh60 a kg, to maintain its freshness.It also need requires refrigeration during transportation and careful handling to avert spoilage and maintain its shape for easy marketability. “The look is very important to the customer,” said Justus Wambua, Biosafe’s manager.
However, the Reishi mushroom is more robust and can be sold when dry as well as fresh, lasting for over six years when dried.
Biosafe is currently sourcing the mushroom from 30 small holder mushroom farmers in Nairobi, Nakuru and Thika in quantities as low as 3 kilograms. “Some farmers are sending it to us in parcels,” said Wambua
The company’s willingness to buy small and irregular quantities has opened a new window for the country’s mushroom farmers, in a sector that has been plagued by marketing problems. Mushrooms are in big demand in Kenya by major shopping outlets, but most small holder farmers are unable to produce enough consistently to meet the demand of these shopping outlets.
That has resulted in smallholders abandoning the crop despite its potential for high returns. Biosafe is buying a maximum of 30 to 40kgs per season from each farmer. “So that there is no overproduction,” said Wambua.
For as little as Sh30, 000 a farmer can farm Reishi in a 3 x 3 meter room. It takes a month to incubate and guarantees three months of harvest. Such a room can hold 1000 mushrooms growing on small polythene bags.
The Reishi Mushroom is highly valued in the Far Eastern for its inherent medicinal qualities. It has been shown to have compounds that boost the immunity in patients with AIDS as well as help in producing T lymphocytes cells that fight various forms of cancers.
In China the Reishi is viewed as a longevity herb. It is also an anti oxidant that cleanses the body of toxins and excess fats and improves blood circulation. However pregnant women are advised not to take it, as is anyone on anticoagulants to stop blood clotting.
According to medical studies, the Reisha can cause nausea in some people or interfere with other medicines.
To market the new Reishi beverages, Biosafe is currently using a ‘business builders’ referral system with, so far, 56 business builders “and the number is growing daily,” said Wambua. They started recruiting the business builders 3 weeks ago. It is a similar model to the marketing network used by GNLD, SwissGarde and Tianshi in markeing their health supplements, and works by getting buyers of the product to recommend it to friends or family.
Biosafe pays a commission to business builders according to the number of units sold, with marketers able to earn from Sh7200 to Sh360,000 monthly.
Wambua argues that introducing the Reishi blends is creating employment to people even with minimum academic qualifications, as well as for farmers.
In their first month, Biosafe has sold 5000 packets of the Tea blend and 1200 of coffee. A packet of tea for 25 servings sells at Sh250 and coffee with 60 servings costs Sh1200.
The world market for Reishi mushroom themselves is worthsome $4 billion according to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), with India importing the bulk of its Reishi from Malaysia and China. China is the world’s biggest cultivator of Reishi and provides two thirds of Reishi in the world, according to ICAR.
Biosafe is sourcing its tea and coffee from local auctions and processors.
Written By James Karuga for African Laughter
Four years ago, an acre of land in semi-arid Kieni West District in Nyeri cost Sh70,000. Today, an acre costs Sh250,000 to Sh350,000. The surge in land value has been caused by the financial windfall hybrid onion farming has brought to farmers.
When mature, each bag can produce at least 400 grams of mushrooms. A kilogram of oyster mushrooms sold to local shopping outlets fetches Sh400, meaning that if the 1000 bags each yield 400 grams, the revenue can total Sh160, 000, less packaging costs of Sh40 a pack.
Sums such as these, that triple investment in a few months, have drawn many into mushroom farming, but some, particularly small scale farmers, are now abandoning cultivation due to marketing bottlenecks. For small scale farmers, the daily production from a 3x3 metre mushroom room can be 5kgs daily for the three month harvesting span. “You can’t sell that to a supermarket” said Wambua.
George Gichuhi a farmer and instructor based at Rongai said the secret to a better market for mushrooms lies in quality. “The trick is in the product quality” said Gichuhi. Mushrooms are susceptible to attacks by caterpillars.
He also points to the value addition of diversifying by marketing mushrooms dried or pickled or as part of a food menu, especially for oyster mushrooms.
By contrast to the easy-entry oyster mushroom, the more lucrative button mushroom can cost Sh200, 000 to establish in a 3 x 3 metres room and “it’s very labour intensive”, said Gichuhi. If one step in its cultivation is bungled, it interferes with the whole maturity and growth.
However, the returns per kilogram can be over Sh500, said Wambua. “Some 90 per cent of button mushrooms sell, compared to the oyster at 10 per cent.” The button mushrooms produced in Kenya meet 46 per cent of the local market demand, while the rest is imported from Far East.
However, just like the oyster, large-scale farming tends to be more economically viable, through ensuring consistent yield and a sustained market supply to a farmer’s clientele.
But even as the challenges of ensuring quality and establishing sufficient and regular marketing outlets hold local production back, the scope for mushrooms looking forward is substantial.
Mushroom are rich sources of Vitamin D and have minerals like potassium which control errant blood pressure – now a surging problem in Kenya. The selenium mineral additionally protects body cells from damage and for vegetarians they provide vitamin B that’s available in meat.
Just over a year ago University Of Nairobi science laboratories, started conducting scientific tests on the Ganoderma Lucidum mushroom also called Reishi in Japanese. Sparsely grown in Kenya, the Reishi mushroom is believed to have some immune boosting extracts useable in HIV Anti-Retroviral Therapy. These supplements are medically known to reduce opportunistic infections common among HIV sufferers.
Similar studies have been conducted on Reishi in the Far East and in the West although they have not yet been conclusive. One such study was done at Seattle by a naturopathic doctor Jessica Leopard based at Seattle’s Bastyr University and publicised at an International Aids conference held at Rio de Janeiro in July 2005.
Written By James Karuga for African Laughter
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