Nigeria has all the indices for greatness so one wonders why it is not great. Some have pointed at poor leadership and followership, corruption, poverty etc as culprits but one tends to agree with a popular Nollywood actor, Mr. Nkem Owoh who in one of his movies, wondered aloud if Nigerians were made by God’s apprentice.
Nigeria is blessed with abundant natural and human resources, highly talented and resourceful people, high quality natural resources, yet, it seems to be moving round and round in circles. In this interview with Professor John Aroye Okhuoya, Professor of Mycology and Director, African Centre for Mushroom Research and Technology Innovation, University of Benin, he speaks on how Nigeria can partake of the multi-million dollar mushroom industry.
I had my first degree in Microbiology here. I was one of the first 100 students of the University of Benin when it was Midwestern Institute of Technology. Thereafter, I worked briefly in the Rubber Research Institute and then went abroad for my PhD. I came back in 1981 and started lecturing in 1983 in the Department of Botany (now Department of Plant Biology and Biotechnology, University of Benin. I became a professor in 1995. I have been training undergraduate and post-graduate students in Mushroom Science.
Interest in mushroom:
I grew up in the rural area and we used to go for mushroom hunting in the village, collecting wild mushrooms for sale in the evenings. My father gave me some information on the different mushrooms that we ate. That was how the interest came. I have developed this area of research over the years and at a point, we felt that this university should be a reference point. We introduced Mushroom Science in our curriculum.
At undergraduate level, we have Introduction to Mushroom Science, and then I developed a master’s and PhD programmes in Mushroom Science. Mushroom production is still very low in Nigeria hence many of our people still depend on collection of mushrooms from the wild.
This is fraught with the danger of collecting poisonous with edible ones. Commercial farming holds the key to the eventual elimination of occasional mushroom poisoning in our population.
Categories of mushrooms:
There are four main categories of mushrooms. Edible mushrooms (those you can eat as food); Medicinal mushrooms used in taking care of certain ailments; Poisonous mushrooms (these are deadly). There are also mushrooms that are both medicinal as well as edible. Then the last category is the Miscellaneous group which contains mushrooms whose values are not yet established.
Edible mushrooms are rich in protein, B-vitamins and contain moderate amount of vitamin C. They are, however, low in carbohydrate and are generally preferred to fresh vegetables because weight for weight, the body absorbs all of mushrooms eaten without wastes. Common edible species in Nigeria are Pleurotus tuber-regium or tuberous mushroom (very common in South-East and used in cooking egusi soup. It produces tuber in the dry season and then in the rainy season, they break the ground and begin to produce fruiting bodies.
The tuber, referred to as sclerotium, is the form the mushroom uses to hibernate in order to survive the harsh conditions of the dry season. In our folklores, it is believed that for the native doctor to see the future, he will have to make a paste of the tuber, and rub his eyes and he will see visions.) Other edible species are: Lentinus squarrosulus, Auricularia auricula, Lepiota sp, Termitomyces spp, Volvoriella esculenta, Lycoperdon spp among others.
In our traditional system, Nigerians have always eaten mushrooms. In the South-East, they eat a lot of vegetables and mushrooms. In my own area in Edo North, we have mushrooms in our dietary system, so our elders knew the difference. They had their own ways of identifying them but we refer to those ways as old wives’ fables because they are not reliable. For example, they tell you that when you see a mushroom with flies perching on it, it shows it is edible because it did not kill the flies.
That is not reliable because there is a mushroom called Amanita muscaria. Flies perch on it though it is not edible. It is noted for its hallucinogenic properties so when flies eat this mushroom, they fall into stupor, temporarily dead and at the end, they recover. So you cannot rely on that method of identifying edible mushrooms. But the point is they have been able to identify the ones they eat right from the beginning and they have stuck to those ones.
Here at the centre, we have our own ways of identifying them using chemistry but we advise people to eat those ones that are known to be edible.
What we do at the Centre:
The essence of our research is to ensure that we get the mechanism/technology to produce edible mushrooms so that our people can easily access them. That is what is happening in the UK and other developed countries; they cultivate and sell edible mushrooms in the market. If you rely on collecting from the wild, you are likely to collect both edible and poisonous mushrooms. That is why we are advocating that in Nigeria, we have gotten to a stage where we should be eating cultivated mushrooms.
The beauty of it is that the species we have in Nigeria are very delicious and comparable with any type of mushroom from any part of the world. So the purpose of this centre is to first of all, document as much as possible, all available identifiable mushrooms in the whole of West Africa Sub-region, particularly Nigeria, and have a gene bank because right now, most of the mushrooms we used to eat as children are disappearing as a result of deforestation.
This is the best time for us to begin to store some of the ones that are still available so that we can have our own gene bank for future use. Apart from meeting our national needs, contributing to national nutritional diet, we can also begin to export and earn foreign exchange. That is what we are doing here – we train people, create capital, and as much as possible, simulate people to be interested in mushroom farming.
Mushrooms and health:
In Ghana, there is a strong belief that making a paste of Pleurotus tuber-regium and rubbing it on a malnourished child, will make the child fatten up. I don’t know how true that is. Mushrooms have a high percentage of protein, amino acids and all other minerals that help in development of our immune system. For those who want to lose weight, it is very good. A lot of products have been developed from mushrooms.
For example, a product used in the treatment of arthritis from ganoderma, a mushroom from China, and so many other such products. We can produce them here. We have ganoderma tea, mushroom tea etc. Mushrooms have been indicated in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. You can have our garri, rice, bread, etc fortified with mushroom mycelium so you will not be eating ordinary garri, but garri that is fortified with a lot of protein. That is our vision. We are developing the technology.
As a matter of fact, WHO sponsored one of the top mushroom scientists to develop some mushroom products that helped to treat an AIDS patient in South Africa. What that product did was to enhance the appetite of the patient because one of the things we see with AIDS patients is that they lose appetite, lose weight and gradually die. It was found that when their food was fortified with mushroom, the appetite increased and they ate more, put on weight, and started living healthy lives.
Mushroom is a foreign exchange earner for many developed countries; a multi-million-dollar business in America, Europe, much more in China and other Asian countries. They use it for medicinal and nutritional purposes. Most of the mushrooms we have in our supermarkets are imported. We can produce them here in large quantities. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo started a mushroom farm which is no longer producing because of the technology involved in producing exotic strains.
Some of our local farmers are now trying to produce our tropical mushrooms. We have developed many local species and strains that are succulent, sweet and delicious which we can recommend and assist farmers in growing if they wish to go into mushroom farming.
The mushroom also plays a lot of role in environmental cleansing. We have found that some mushrooms are able to absorb heavy metals from the environment and so when you grow some edible mushrooms in a polluted environment, they absorb the heavy metals so you cannot eat them, they become agents of filtration, trying to filter those chemicals that are dangerous to health from the environment.
One of my students did his PhD on bioremediation. He found out that some of our mushrooms when grown on soils that have been so bastardised through pollution, can rejuvenate the soil through increased biomass.
It is quite easy. Like I said, we have spent quite some time to study our indigenous mushrooms. We have done a lot of survey in different parts of the country, on the type of mushroom they eat, the history behind most of the mushrooms etc., and we have developed the technology using local resources to grow them.
Mushroom cultivation involves five major stages:
Bed preparation: You prepare mushroom bed using different substrates. We have worked out different substrates using agricultural waste like banana leaves, stems, oil palm fruit fibre, oil palm bunch, banana peels and corn husks which we treat chemically. Spawning (mushroom seed planting). After a while, the mycelium will grow and run through the system and in few days, you see the whole place white. If you leave it like that, you may never get fruiting bodies so we do what is called casing.
Casing: You cover it with calcium carbonate soil and you are by that act telling the mushroom to stop vegetating and grow up, you divert the mushroom from vegetative to productive phase. When you put that soil, the mushroom is shocked, it is being starved of nutrients so it starts looking for a way of survival. It tells itself, ‘before I die, let me produce my kind.’ So it begins to produce spores because it wants to survive and in the process, it begins to have fruiting bodies which the farmer harvests.
Picking or harvesting: After a while, the mushroom is ready for harvest.
The first day you harvest, after two or three days, you harvest again, until the fourth or fifth time when the yield will be decreasing and then you can stop.
Packaging: The final step is packaging.
Each step requires careful handling for best results. Not all mushrooms follow all the above five steps. Some species require specific conditions for their growth and development.
The beauty of this farming process is that even the spent substrate can be used for growing other vegetables. It will become organic fertilizer so nothing is wasted.
University of Benin was kind enough to sponsor this centre and it was commissioned by President Goodluck Jonathan last November. Within a short time, we have achieved so much in the areas of capacity-building, mushroom production, and our target is to raise farmers that can produce in commercial quantities. We will stimulate people to go into making mushroom products for health, medicinal and nutritional purposes.
It is a simple thing but it has taken us a long time to get to where we are today. We are hoping that the government, corporate organizations and private individuals will come in here, use our technology and expertise to go into business and develop whatever product they want to develop.
We will assist them because we have the expertise.