Beyond Subsistence: A Practical Blueprint for Turbocharging the Zimbabwean Mushroom Industry

Beyond Subsistence: A Practical Blueprint for Turbocharging the Zimbabwean Mushroom Industry

By Takudzwa Nyakanyanga

Ever since its introduction in Zimbabwe in the 90’s, mushroom farming has been largely a cottage industry composed mostly of farmers who operate at subsistence levels. Below I highlight my blueprint for moulding, supporting and promoting more productive mushroom enterprises. And ultimately creating a more professional, productive and coordinated mushroom industry.

  1. Establishing A Robust Commercial Mushroom Growers Association

First and foremost, mushroom growers in Zimbabwe need to come together and form their own commodity association. A robust commercial mushroom growers’ association that will formulate a clear vision for the sector and spearhead its implementation. Currently the mushroom industry is directionless and is excluded from planning within the agriculture sector at pretty much all levels. In the Horticulture Recovery and Growth Plan, the word “mushrooms” appears only once and just in passing. This is in stark contrast to the huge untapped potential within the sector.

The focus of this association will have to be unapologetically commercial. This means for a grower to qualify for and to maintain their membership they would have to produce above a certain minimum level. This is the only way for the association to have the kind of influence wielded by the likes of TIMB and the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe. It is crucial to build an association that has enough leverage to negotiate with government and other entities, instead of a toothless one that can only lobby them.

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This growers’ association will also have the responsibility of doing investor relations on a sector-wide level. It will have the tall task of putting an end to the current gross misrepresentation of mushroom farming as a business. Essentially, putting an end to the use of phrases such as “quick returns” and “easy money” in connection with mushroom business. Such an association will have to manage the image of the mushroom industry as an investment avenue – think ZIDA but specifically for the mushroom sector. It will have to make sure anyone intending to invest in mushrooms gets correct and complete information. This could be done through the publication of mushroom investor information booklets.

  • Regulating Mushroom Farming Trainers

Mushroom production is not taught under any diploma or degree program in Zimbabwe, meaning there is no means of authenticating that anyone who claims to be a mushroom trainer actually knows what they are doing. This situation is worsened by the fact that there is no one system for growing mushrooms. Each grower has his own system and when you learn from an established grower, you learn their tried and tested system as well as the logic behind it.

While learning from experienced and active growers is sound advice, it is not enough to take the mushroom sector to the dizzy heights that it aspires to. Commercial mushroom cultivation requires high levels of knowledge and skill. Each type of mushroom requires specialized treatment to produce consistent yields of high-quality, marketable mushrooms. Most failed growers entered the sector without a full appreciation of this complexity. And the introduction of the regulation of mushroom production trainers will remedy this.

As an industry won’t get very far if we keep allowing people to proclaim themselves qualified enough to train. Some form of certification scheme for trainers needs to be set up and this certification needs to be renewed periodically to ensure trainers keep up with the latest changes on the ground. The setting of a standardized training guide or a prescribed training syllabus will also help to remedy the poor quality of some the trainings currently being provided.

  • Improving The Quality & Availability of Mushroom Seed

In farming, good seed is the genesis of a good harvest. If your seed is wrong, then every other resource and effort is wasted. Currently the quality and performance of most locally produced mushroom seed is to hit and miss, leading to wild fluctuations in production levels, productivity and profitability that threaten the viability of most mushroom businesses. And the locating of mushroom production and mushroom seed production at the same location (as is the norm currently) poses a great risk to the industry as a whole in terms of high cross-contamination risk. Contaminated seed can be a vector through which some really aggressive and problematic strains of weed and competitor moulds or fungi might be spread to all over the country. Hence for the industry to grow without such risks, dedicated labs far away as possible from mushroom production locations need to be set up.

Most commercial mushroom growers buy their seed from South Africa instead of locally. This imported seed performs phenomenally well, however the processes involved in importing it pose great risks and challenges that negatively impact the productivity, profitability and scalability of most small-scale growers. Furthermore, the rest of the world has moved on to high performance hybrid strains while we have lagged behind with older strains. Also, we have not yet introduced other types of mushrooms that can be grown using the same substrates and conditions. This needs to change for the industry to move forward.

  • Enhancing Collaboration Among Mushroom Farmers

Zimbabwe has quite a number of mushrooms growers but sadly most of them do not know each other and hence they do not interact. This has resulted in a sector shrouded in secrecy and marred by isolation and the perpetual “re-inventing of the wheel”. This lone wolf mentality should end. There needs to be more interaction and cooperation among local mushroom growers. Through this cross-pollination of ideas and experiences, the skills of growers will reach phenomenal levels.

Collaboration will help the sector transition to more productive, more profitable and more sustainable models. The current scenario of wanting to control or operate across the whole value chain as a single player is very sub-optimal. It is only through collaboration that mushroom sector players will be able to build the support systems necessary for the sector to reach its full potential. Currently too many resources are being wasted in avoidable duplication and retrogressive competition. Beyond collaboration in production, mushroom farmers need to collaborate in marketing as well.

  • Increasing Research and Development

There is a serious need for us to do our own research and development in the areas of strains, production methods & systems as well as mechanisation technologies. This may be as simple as verifying the efficacy and suitability of foreign methods and technologies as well localizing them. Research is also needed to compile reliable data and statistics on the industry itself. At the moment all the so-called statistics on mushrooms are no more than educated guesses. Planning for the future requires accurate data on growers, production levels, productivity, markets / buyers, prices, consumption, imports, exports, raw materials and funding.

Creating and deepening linkages with local universities and innovation hubs will go a long way in attaining this objective. Growers in countries that have made it big in the mushroom industry have partnered with universities to create sector-specific research units. This has enabled them to pull resources and concentrate their research in areas that actually serve real industry needs on the ground and help move their industry forward. For example, in the US there is Penn State University and in South Africa there is Pretoria University. Numerous researches and innovations for the mushroom sector have come out of these two universities. 

  • Establishing Mushroom Enterprise Development Programs

Agriculture is a business. We have all heard it or said it yet so few practice it. Most mushroom growers don’t act like business people – they treat mushrooms like some income generating project. This needs to change. There needs to be a structured and systematic infusion of sound business practices in the industry. The main component of this will be business skills and enterprise development programs. And here I mean programs tailored to the sector and not some generic agriculture program. Mushroom farming is a high-specialized sector where you are dealing with a crop that is more perishable and more capital intensive than most other crops. Any business programs and interventions should acknowledge this and be tailored accordingly.

In concluding it is imperative to stress that all of this hinges on us having a sound vision of where we want to go and what we want the industry to become, and how committed we are to our chosen path.

Takudzwa Nyakanyanga runs Beyond Fertile, an eco-inclusive enterprise that helps small-scale commercial mushroom growers in Zimbabwe increase their productivity, profitability and scalability. You can reach him on +263 782 868 277.


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