Dickson Mathenge, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, builds a mushroom cultivation business from his long term practice as a mycologist
By Caroline Mwendwa
Being in the academia requires continuous research and application of knowledge to come up with new ideas and more so improve lives through research and innovation. Dickson Mathenge is one such don who has been a lecturer at the College of Agriculture and Veterinary Science at Kabete Campus, an affiliate of The University of Nairobi since 1993. At a glance, Mathenge is the typical quiet, scientist but unknown to many is his entrepreneurial journey with mushrooms, a rarely grown product. His know how in fungi culture and mycology has gained him a solid background in mushroom spawning, and this has borne him the Hotech Mushrooms Company which deals in mushroom cultivation and training.
“I began this venture to complement my earnings.” Mathenge says. There are not many people involved in mushroom farming and infact for many, mushrooms are wild plants that are not consumable by human beings. Occasionally, they grow on logs and are left to dry out and wither. Not many people know their health and nutritional benefits.” Mathenge posits, observing that this could be one of the reasons why it is not widely grown. However, Mathenge notes with caution that not all types of mushroom are edible, and some wild mushrooms can be toxic. That is why, one requires an experienced supplier of spawns, to ensure that the type that he/ she cultivates is a nutritious type and is purified. Entrepenuers like Mathenge offer solutions to this obstacle to farmers who would like to get in the business of mushroom farming by cultivating spawns (mushroom seeds)for sale and training would-be farmers on the best cultivation, harvesting and distribution methods.
The process of cultivating and harvesting mushrooms
Mushrooms are different from other plants and require different conditions for optimal growth. Plants develop through photosynthesis, a process that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, especially cellulose. While sunlight provides an energy source for plants, mushrooms derive all of their energy and growth materials from their growth medium called substrate (dead grains on which mushroom seeds are attached). The process of developing spawns begins in the laboratory. Through laboratory manipulation, experienced fungi scientists add the culture to already sterilized compost which then grows to a mycelium.Mycelium, or actively growing mushroom culture, is placed on a substrate—usually sterilized grains such as millet—and induced to grow into those grains. The medium is usually boiled grains. The grains being used as the medium are usually boiled to kill them from growing and serve the purpose of a substrate for the mushroom spawns (seeds). The most common substrate or medium that mushroom growers use to cultivate the mush room pins are millet grains. An ideal substrate will contain enough nitrogen and carbohydrate for rapid mushroom growth. The following can also be used as substrates:Wood chips or sawdust, wheat, poultry manure, and grains such as maize, coffee, nuts, cotton seeds, cocoa been, soybean, among others.
Mushroom production converts the raw natural ingredients of the substrate into mushroom tissue.
This process of placing mushroom culture on the substrate is called inoculation. Inoculated grains are referred to as spawns. These are usually packed in bags before they get to a stage of being mixed with sterilized compost (prepared soil with manure, fertilizer and molasses).
“Sterilizing the compost is necessary to ensure that all the other bacteria and fungi is dead so as it does not compete with the mushroom in growth. This can be done through heating or use of chemicals,” explains Mathenge. Pinning is the trickiest part for a mushroom grower, since a combination of carbon dioxide concentration, temperature, light, and humidity triggers mushrooms towards fruiting. Before the mushroom pins appear, the mycelium is an amorphous mass spread throughout the substrate, unrecognizable as a mushroom.
Instead of seeds, mushrooms reproduce asexually through spores. Spores can be contaminated with airborne microorganisms, which will interfere with mushroom growth and prevent a healthy crop.
“To harvest the mushroom, one must use clean hands, and store them in clean packs as they are not to be washed.” Mathenge explains commenting that washing mushrooms is dirtying them. The best way to harvest mushrooms, Mathenge says, is by bending the stalk and pulling them gently and then cutting the bottom part of the stalk.
Health benefits of mushrooms
It is common knowledge that vegetables are essential for healthy feeding. Even though mushrooms are often classified as vegetables, they are not plants but fungi. They contain nutrients exceeding the common colorful vegetables and scientific studies have found them to offer curative and preventive benefits against the following non- communicable diseases:
Cancer: Selenium is a mineral that is not present in most fruits and vegetables but can be found in mushrooms. It plays a role in liver enzyme function, and helps detoxify some cancer-causing compounds in the body. Additionally, selenium prevents inflammation and also decreases tumorgrowth rates.The beta-glucan fibers found in the cell walls of mushrooms stimulate the immune system to fight cancer cells and prevent tumors from forming.
The vitamin D in mushrooms has also been shown to inhibit the growth of cancer cells by contributing to the regulation of the cell growth cycle. The folate in mushrooms plays an important role in DNA synthesis and repair, thus preventing the formation of cancer cells from mutations in the DNA.
Diabetes: Studies have shown that type 1 diabetics who consume high-fiber diets have lower blood glucose levels and type 2 diabetics may have improved blood sugar, lipids and insulin levels. One cup of grilled portabella mushrooms and one cup of stir-fried shiitake mushrooms both provide about 3 grams of fiber.
Heart health: The fiber, potassium and vitamin C content in mushrooms all contribute to cardiovascular health. Potassium and sodium work together in the body to help regulate blood pressure. Consuming mushrooms, which are high in potassium and low in sodium helps to lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases.
Weight management and satiety: Dietary fiber plays an important role in weight management by functioning as a “bulking agent” in the digestive system. Mushrooms contain two types of dietary fibers in their cell walls: beta-glucans and chitin which increase satiety and reduce appetite, making you feel fuller longer and thereby lowering your overall calorie intake.
Selenium has also been found to improve immune response to infection by stimulating production of killer T-cells.
Market for mushrooms
With numerous health benefits found in one product, mushrooms have a high demand in hotels and other hospitality institutions such as hospitals. “Most farmers who grow the spawns I sell, have a steady market and often times the demand is too high than the spawns available.” Mathenge explains. Sometimes people who are not aware that there are highly qualified and skilled spawn providers within the country import them.” He continues, explaining that the cost of importing spawns is usually very high and at the same time his spawns cost a half of the price of imported spawns, most of which are imported from South Africa.
The more people get to learn of the health benefits of mushrooms the more the demand rises. This is most especially due to the rising cases of non-communicable diseases that have no cure, with cancer leading.
“All the high-end hotels in Kenya cannot do without mushrooms. It is a part of their must have ingredients especially because they serve the well-travelled customers. Kenyans are also embracing the value of mushrooms and the demand is rising by day. It is slowly gaining popularity. Today, meals such as cakes, sandwiches, stew amongst many others, have mushrooms in them. The greatest advantage is that there not many farmers doing mushroom cultivation, and therefore those that are in it are making very high profits due to high sales.” He points out.
While for most vegetables and fruits once the market has gone down, one is likely to make huge losses due to their perishable nature, mushrooms have an alternative method of marketing. Once their fresh period is over, a mushroom cultivator can dry them to make various other products that are not perishable. Dried mushrooms can last for long enough until there is market for the product or one can make powder which is also marketable.
Just like any other venture, mushroom cultivation is not without its challenges. There are various types of mushrooms and each variety has its strengths. The challenge as Mathenge explains comes in when trying to purely bring up a type of mushroom such as the top button mushroom. Often times, the sprouting phase comes with its surprises as the sowed spawn may be accompanied by many other types of fungi which impedes the growth of the desired mushroom. Considering that this applies to the highest quality type of mushroom such as the button, cultivators of mushroom are left to suffer loss of market as buyers of the spawns turn to the international market to import pure spawns.
“A lot of work goes into preparing spawns. “It takes me a very long time to process the conditions necessary for growing spawns, but once the spawns are ready, one can harvest the mushrooms in around 35 days. Sometimes the spawn may be unyielding and when buyers experience such an instance, they may draw conclusions that the seller is not genuine which is not always the case,” he further explains. This is especially so because there are so many people pretending to be experts in cultivating spawns for sale, yet they lack the skill and knowledge of perfecting the practice. This leads to buyers losing trust in local sellers of spawns compromising the genuine suppliers.
Finally, technology is a necessity in this business. Fungi culture requires scientific technology such as pasteurizers, to purify the compost, and a temperature and humidity regulated air, for proper growth. Lack of these can therefore be a hurdle in the process of cultivating spawns.
Mathenge hopes to build a factory with all the necessary technology to prepare spawns in the near future. “I have already identified a piece of land to set up my factory, and with a centralized location, I hope to reach many more customers,” he says. He also hopes to share his knowledge in the fungi culture practice to train willing farmers who would like to do mush room cultivation as a business. The long time lecturer wishes that farmers can take advantage of the potential of mushroom farming and collaborate with the spawn providers to support the local industry in agribusiness. “I am an evidence that there are qualified Kenyans who are even registered with the relevant association to offer these services, and so we should make use of the local potential within our country by maximum utilization of resources such as mushrooms which are rated to be among the most nutritious fungi cultural products,” he concludes.