High-return mushroom growing stalls on marketing issues

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.

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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