Amoro, the locally produced mushroom, has already taken roughly half of the market share from Israeli producers.
Tucked away amid the palm trees in one of the world’s oldest cities, an unadorned white warehouse sits on a dusty plot of land. Inside, air conditioners hum as workers hover over elevated beds of dirt.
They methodically pick out the pearly white domes peeking out from the compost as a strip of neon lights shines overhead. When their work is done, the first locally produced mushrooms in Palestine will be packaged and shipped to Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem and other cities across the West Bank.
The Amoro farm was formed three years ago by four young Palestinians who noted the absence of local mushroom production in the Palestinian market, which is saturated with Israeli goods.
The group of friends had no agricultural background – their studies focused on IT, web development and business – but they researched mushroom-growing techniques and enrolled in classes in Europe on how to cultivate the organic, white fungi
My name is Asenanth Byaruhanga and I have been engaged in mushroom growing since 1995. It is a family business where my husband, Lawrence Byaruhanga, gives me a lot of support. My four children too, especially when they are at home during their school holidays.
I got interested in mushrooms after completing my studies at Nkumba University. First, I ventured into retail business and later I did rearing poultry but was challenging.
But, around that time, there were radio announcements inviting those interested in mushroom growing to go and train at the National Laboratories Research Institute (NaLRI) in Kawanda.
Understand the process
That time, my husband had completed a course in marketing and was working at Crown Beverages as a sales person. Later, he moved to Ugafode and retired in 1996.
When I went to Kawanda for the first time, I saw a note on the noticeboard; it read ‘Growing mushrooms without seed’. I wondered how one can grow mushrooms without seed. It is until I started attending trainings, particularly on growing the Oyster mushrooms, that I understood the process.
In 1995, we started with growing mushrooms in the corridors of the family home. But we bought quarter an acre of land in 2002. It is near our family home in Kireka, a Kampala suburb.
We grow different varieties of Oyster mushroom, which are differentiated by colour–brown, grey and white.
But prior to purchase of the land, we had registered as an association called Byabomukama Growers’ Association in a bid to start exporting our products to South Africa. But we realised the middlemen were unscruplous.
In 1995 and 1999, I trained in mushroom spawn production at Kawanda and I went for further training in Nairobi, Kenya, at a farm called Juja Farm. This was on growing another variety called Ganodama, which is medicinal.
In mushroom spawn production, one isolates spores and multiplies them in the laboratory using a media culture to make mother spawns. These are multiplied for commercialisation.
While producing mushroom spawns, one is expected to use raw material such as wheat straws, rice straws and cotton husks, which can be mixed with molasses for it to start shooting.
In my case I use millet for the seeds, which I later sell to those who may wish to grow them.
What happens in the seed production is after mixing the ingredients in the media culture, I then mix it with the millet seed to make spoons, which is bottled and left for about two weeks.
Here, the spawns will be ready meaning it can now be transferred to polythene bags, steamed for sterilisation and left to cool, then later taken to the garden for planting after it is incubated. This takes between two to three weeks to cropping time.
Forming an association.
At the moment, we are using a small laboratory at home for processing the spawns but we have constructed a bigger laboratory at Kasokoso, which we intend to utilise soon, probably in one month’s time.
In 2004, we formed an association called Uganda Mushroom Growers Association with membership from Kampala, Wakiso, Mukono and Mpigi districts and I am the chairperson.
We have about 200 mushroom farmers with the main benefit of looking for the right market as a team, sell our produce in bulk and share the proceeds.
But we are usually faced with the challenge of supplying supermarkets on credit. Their proprietors pay us later yet the farmers need money to cater for their day-to-day obligations.
Another challenge is the limited capital, which hinders farmers from investing in mushroom growing. For my case, I have specialised in training those interested in growing mushrooms.
I usually travel to different districts training farmers especially in Kibaale District. Those from Rakai and Kampala usually come to my farm for the trainings.
I charge Shs100,000 each for the knowledge sharing on Oyster growing but for varieties like Ganodama Button and Shitake, we are still exploring the potential market.
Ganodama is known for its medicinal features; it is an immune booster to our body and prolongs the lifespan. It can be dried and value added by mixing it with soya, coffee, cocoa and tea.
This product is packed in tins of different sizes, which are sold at Shs5,000 and Shs25,000 depending on the package.
For the case of Ganodama, I have taken it to Makerere University School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, where there are scientists specialised in mushroom production. They have tested it and proved it is not poisonous. I am left with obtaining a certificate from Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) to commercialise its production.
We started research on Ganodama mushroom variety in 2012 and now we are growing it as well as marketing on small scale.
It has the wild variety, which is referred to as matuga bakade in one of the local languages.
We started this business with Shs85,000 but now the working capital can be about Shs3m. Despite the challenges, the family has been able to purchase land for growing mushrooms.
I have managed to construct a good laboratory, which I intend to utilise intensively for training mushroom growers.
Our peak season is usually the rainy season and we sell Oyster mushrooms at Shs5,000 a kilogramme.
I advise those interested to come and train in mushroom growing because as an association, we are looking forward to exporting the product and capture the regional market. In addition, mushroom are rich in food value. They contain vitamins as well as minerals like iron, zinc. They also have medicinal properties, which is good for human health.
In their own words
Mushrooms are a well known and traditional delicacy in Africa, where most people get various varieties from the wild or where they grow randomly. But now many farmers are engaged in growing mushrooms in their home settings.
Mushrooms are a very good source of proteins, minerals and vitamins, and it is possible to grow them in urban areas due to limited availability of land and space.
Since land ownership is also a tricky subject in Uganda, most mushroom growers are doing it on a small scale.
Irrespective of that, the requirements for growing mushrooms are not tedious as one is able to afford growing as much as possible in a small space. Even the market demand is growing especially in hotels, restaurants and supermarkets which require consistent supplies of quality mushrooms.
Oyster mushroom is the most commonly grown species in Uganda but some farmers have also been exploring other species of mushrooms.
So far, they are the only wood grown mushrooms and professionally cultivated because the rapid incubation of mycelium can be attained even in the primitive laboratory conditions. The oysters are well known and therefore demanded for.
You may venture into growing the other types of mushrooms such as those grown on compost, or the white camp. These are quite costly although the growers still lack sufficient knowledge that is needed for their proper cultivation.