By Moses Nampala
There were many beneficiaries who turned out to witness the official opening of a community mushroom research centre in Butaleja district.
However, Zanula Namudila, 78, from Namusela village in Mazimasa sub-county in Butaleja district stood out.
She broke out in a long and loud ululation, danced in excitement as other group members joined in her celebration.
Just the previous evening, she had earned sh40,000 from mushrooms she harvested from her backyard garden.
The proceeds from the enterprise were timely.
“I had run out of sugar, therefore, replenishing it was my priority when I got the money,” she says.
Namudila and her colleagues are beneficiaries of government’s efforts to fight poverty through skilling the masses.
Twelve years ago, the Government adopted the concept of “soft transfer of essential technical skills to the community in rural areas” to address unemployment and massive rural-urban migration.
The Government then tasked Makerere University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Animal Resource and Bio-security and the Directorate of Industrial Training with coming up with a special skills learning model for rural communities.
It is against that background that the Government considered establishing vocational institutions at regional levels to transfer essential skills to rural communities.
Great Lakes Rural Technical Institute in Butaleja district is among the special regional vocational institutions that the Government has since established to serve communities in eastern Uganda.
The community members acquired skills in driving, bakery, poultry, hairdressing, tailoring, motorcycle and vehicle mechanic, masonry and plumbing, among others.
Freda Ann Namubiru, the chief community mushroom enterprise instructor at the institute, says the mushroom growing enterprise started in August 2022 with all the materials locally sourced.
Namubiru is a biologist in the discipline of science and technology.
She majored in biology while at Kyambogo University.
“The immediate term plan in the next three years of rolling out the enterprise is to reach 20,000 households from sub-regions of Bukedi and Elgon,” she says.
More than 700 households in the three districts of Tororo, Butaleja and Budaka out of the seven from Bukedi sub-region, have not only been successfully skilled in mushroom growing, but have also set up gardens in their backyards.
The other districts in the sub-region earmarked for the mushroom enterprise are Kibuku, Pallisa, Busia and Butebo district.
The districts in the greater Elgon sub-region set for the enterprise are Mbale, Manafwa, Sironko, Bulambuli, Namisindwa and Bududa, Kapchorwa, Kween and Bukwo.
Magaret Naheme, 29, a beneficiary and resident of Nampologoma sub-county in Butaleja district, took New Vision through what it takes to undertake a mushroom enterprise.
“One of the primary raw materials that the farmer needs is cotton waste,” she says.
Cotton waste is readily available in Bukedi sub-region because the crop is grown in the area.
“A standard mushroom garden weighs 2kg of cotton waste,” she says. Each garden (2kg of cotton waste) is stashed in a translucent plastic bag.
“A commercial farmer needs a minimum of 100 gardens (cotton waste packs weighing 2kg stashed in plastic bags,” Neheme says. Annet Takuwa, 32, another mushroom beneficiary picks the tale from Neheme.
She says after the gardens have been prepared, the farmer has to sterilise them).
“Sterilisation kills germs in the cotton waste,” she says.
Sterilisation of gardens
Takuwa says they use a huge metallic drum put on a hearth. It is filled with water because the sterilisation process requires hot steam. Stash wood, timber, logs inside the metallic drum.
“The wood, timber, log material have to be submerged to the water level inside the drum,” she says.
Carefully cover a sack or fibre-like material over the wood, timber and logs to form a carefully laid out base inside the metallic drum.
The cotton gardens are then laid inside the metallic drum up to the brim, then carefully covered with another sack or fibre material.
The hearth is then lighted. The mushroom gardens are boiled under hot steam for four hours.
Clean place to cool down
After the sterilisation exercise, the mushroom gardens are put in a clean place to cool down.
By this time, a farmer ought to have long procured the mushroom seed materials. Once the gardens have cooled down the farmer can plant the mushroom seeds.
The farmer must construct a dark room, which is a makeshift shelter. It is made out of poles and nails measuring 6×8 feet.
Both its walls and rooftops are made out of papyrus and black plastic sheets. It has no opening nor exposing its interior to light.
The floor of the dark room has to be fitted with a layer of charcoal dust. The essence in this is to suppress chances of dust from the bare ground from contaminating the mushroom garden.
Takuwa adds that the dark room has to be furnished with a makeshift rack furniture made out of modest poles of about three to four chambers to host the mushroom garden.
Take garden to dark room
After the planting exercise, the farmer should transfer the mushroom gardens into the darkroom, carefully laying them on racks then lock the room.
The mushroom gardens are kept in the dark room for three weeks.
The day the gardens make three weeks in the dark room, they are then transferred to a growing room.
Like the dark room, the growing is also another shelter made out poles, nails and papyrus.
The size is similar to that of the dark room (6x8ft) The only distinction from the dark room is that it is constructed with a provision of light because the farmer has to use wire mesh.
Again, like the dark room, the growing room has to be furnished with makeshift rack furniture, with innumerable chambers and its floor covered with a layer of charcoal dust.
After the gardens are transferred from the dark to the growing room, they are carefully placed on the makeshift rack.
A week after the transfer, a farmer should begin to harvest mushrooms that sprout at the end of the mushroom gardens’ period.
Namubiru says the harvesting season cycle lasts three months.
“When a farmer harvests the mushroom from the garden, it takes about two to three days for fresh mushrooms to sprout on the garden again. The harvest exercise lasts about three months,” Namubiru says.
A farmer could harvest between 1-2kg of mushrooms from each garden.
Gerald Musene, 40, another beneficiary, says they have not had a standard measurement for fresh mushrooms as they still use handfuls.
“It depends on how much money a client has, but normally a few handfuls of the recipe ranges from sh2,000 to sh10,000,” he says.
Geofrey Obala, 34, from Budaka town council says the beauty of the enterprise is that 90% of the raw materials are in the wilderness within their vicinity.
Edward Nangosha, 35, a resident of Busaba sub-county, says Butaleja is delighted that the Government has provided them a team of technical people to consult.
The farmers say at the moment they are overwhelmed by demand from their respective communities.
“The community research centres could be equated to community produce stores, as the stores have been furnished with drier devices (value addition devices) for the perishable vegetables,” Namubiru says.
In the event a farmer has not sold all the fresh mushrooms harvest, they can take them to the research centre where they can be preserved, therefore, reducing the chances of losses and also keep quality standards.
“Farmers with excess mushroom should take them to the nearby mushroom research centre to avoid scenarios where the hygiene of the produce is compromised,” Namubiru says.
The excess mushroom is dried at the local research centre, packed and sold to big hotels.
Each farmer who submits mushrooms is registered and the vegetable is weighed before its stashed into the drier facilities.
“The farmers now know how to convert the weight of fresh mushroom into dry ones,” Namubiru says.
The farmers receive their money as soon as dry mushroom bulk is sold.
Community research centres are resource centres where farmers could seek technical assistance about the enterprises.
Freda Ann Namubiru, the chief community mushroom enterprise instructor, says a kilogramme of dry mushroom at the moment goes for about sh8,000 and it is bound to increase with the ever-growing clientele.
“When the enterprise takes root with the targeted 20,000 households in production, we shall be ready for the export market as by then our produce shall be reliale and formidable,” Namubiru says.
Although the oyster mushroom enterprise may not be a new phenomenon in Uganda, few people with scanty scientific knowledge have engaged in it, in the past.
Freda Namubiru, a biologist in the discipline of science and technology, says among the bottlenecks is low awareness and rigidity of the few people with the idea of the enterprise to share it with others.
This has contributed to low popularity of the enterprise.
However, because the crop has medicinal properties, Namubiru says it holds a universal market both local and international which is why the Government is now considering mass production.
Average cost of production
At most a farmer may set aside sh20,000 only.
This caters for obtaining poles, papyrus and a roll of plastic sheet used in making gardens as well as the mushroom seed.
Bukedi sub-region being a hub of cotton growing, cotton waste, which is among the primary raw materials, is obtained from ginneries at no cost.