When the going gets tough, the tough get going, so goes an old saying. This adage could have been coined for two sisters in Kimironko.
This adage could have been coined by two sisters in Kimironko, Gasabo District - Fidelis Karangwa, working with Mobi Cash, and Consolata Nakure, an employee of Ministry of Agriculture. The two, in a bid to supplement their income and save on foodstuffs, decided to start a commercial farming venture at their home in Kimironko. Because the family has a small backyard, mushroom growing was the ideal farming activity, Karangwa says. That’s how the family started C&F Agrobusiness, one of the few mushroom growing enterprises in Kigali.
The decision was inspired by Karangwa’s ‘chance’ visit to Kigali Farms, which promotes mushroom growing, among other high-value crops. Karangwa says the visit enabled her to learn how to grow and care for mushrooms, as well as marketing techniques. She pitched this idea to her elder sister Nakure, and equipped with these basic skills on mushroom farming, the sisters now had to think about issues, like start-up capital, to fully implement the business idea. In July 2015, they pooled their savings to kick-start the project.
“We could not have done it without the help and passion of our father,” says Nakure. Their father, Boniface Nsengiyumva, is a retired estates manager of Kigali Institute of Education (now University of Rwanda College of Education). His knowledge in construction and farming has been a cornerstone in the success of this business, Karangwa adds.
She says they opted for mushrooms because they are easy to grow and can be grown on the smallest space available. The crop does not require a lot of expertise to grow it, is high-value and one can start harvesting after a few days compared to other crops that take months to mature. It is also a nutritious farm product for the young and old alike.
Growing mushrooms does not require big chunks of land, so the family’s backyard was enough for the project. After demarcating the area they would start with, they collected a number of materials to set up a structure to act as mushroom-growing ‘greenhouse’. These included wooden poles, papyrus and black polythene paper, and nets. Polythene paper and papyrus act as roofing and wall materials, and the nets help prevent insects from getting into the structure to destroy the mushrooms, Karangwa explains.
The first phase includes setting up of the structure. The structure meausuring 17 metres by 18 metres cost about Rwf2.5 million. It took about three months to complete. This money was used to nails, barbed wire mesh, black polythene paper, timber, as well as poles, papyrus, transport and labour.
Karangwa says the second phase involved installation of six wooden boxes where the mushrooms will be grown. Later, they bought mushroom tubes from Kigali Farms at Rwf300 each.
Since it was the first time they were venturing into the business, Karangwa says they resolved to buy 1,200 tubes worth Rwf360,000 and started with one of the six boxes they had prepared. She says Kigali Farms guided them to plant the tubes.
“They taught us things like proper spacing to allow enough reproduction since one tube can produce multiple mushrooms, as well as how to water the tubes and general crop husbandry concerning mushroom growing,” she notes.
It took about seven weeks for the mushrooms to mature for their first harvest, which Karangwa says was not encouraging. In an ideal situation, the mushrooms grow between five and seven days.
“Mushrooms are weather sensitive, and this affects their growth and quality,” she adds. The poor harvest did not dampen their enthusiasm and they pushed on with the project.
The sisters contributed more money and were able to buy enough mushroom substrates for the second box they had prepared.
They also had to lay better strategies to ensure a good harvest. So, they hired one permanent worker to manage the project closely, on issues of irrigation, regulating the moisture inside the ‘greenhouse’ and pest and disease control. Their father kept a close eye on the project on their behalf.
These efforts paid off as the second crop produced a bumper harvest, which gave them morale to invest more time and resources in the project. They currently have planted in all the six boxes each containing about 1,200 substrates.
Karangwa says from the second harvest onwards, things continued getting better and better, and so was the income. On a good day, she says, one box produces 110kg of mushrooms, with a kilogramme ranges from Rwf1,000-Rwf1,500, depending on the amount bought. Mushrooms are marketed by Kenyan businesswoman, Florence Mwashimba. Kigali Farms provides the young entrepreneurs cold chain facilities during the harvest period grow in flashes and the first flash usually gives the best production. This gradually reduces and so far they have been able to go up to five flashes.
Karangwa says the project stays afloat because it is driven by the need to improve earnings and ensure sustainable income for the two enterprising women.
They have put in place strong strategies to ensure the project continues to grow and become a major source of the income.
“Since water is very key for the mushroom, we started using water from a tank that harvests rain water at home. This has made it easy and cheap to access water for irrigation all the time,” Karangwa says.
They also follow guidelines from experts and their own research on the crop religiously to avoid any eventualities that could affect the project, especially productivity. She notes that the fact that there are few mushroom growers in Kigali challenges them to work harder, but also gives benefits that come with having a huge market to serve.
Kigali dwellers visit the farm and learn from the project, which has become a ‘God send’ for some of their elderly neighbors who have since become regular customers after learning about the nutritious value of mushrooms. Karangwa says their dad, Nsengiyumva, has played a big role in the project’s success, noting he is always monitoring it and giving them feedback, especially during working days.
Karangwa says lack of enough funding during the initial stages had almost discouraged them from continuing with the enterprise. She adds that the venture still requires cash in all aspects to run smoothly, saying that sometimes they face financial challenges since they depend on personal savings and mushroom sales to keep running. “We are still working hard towards our breaking even point,” notes Nakure.
She adds that weather vagaries, especially with climate change, also mean that they have to work doubly hard and strengthen supervision to ensure the temperatures in the ‘greenhouse’ are not compromised and water for irrigation is always on site.
“We are looking to make C&F Agrobusiness one of the leading mushroom growers in Kigali going forward. We want to buy a bigger piece of land to expand the project and also drying and packaging the mushrooms for export,” Karangwa says.
She adds that they are seeking partnership with firms in agro-processing to add more value and produce other products like mushroom soups.
“We want this project to be the main source of income for the family and also provide employment to other Rwandans,” she says.
The firm also plans to open a website to market their business, and mushroom growing and encourage Rwandans to develop the culture of eating mushrooms.
MUSHROOM GROWING BASICS FOR BEGINNERS
The process of growing mushrooms can be divided roughly into four steps:
- Acquiring and maintaining a culture of mushroom tissue (called mycelium) of the mushroom strain you want. A tissue culture is somewhat like a cutting of a plant. Starting with a tissue culture assures that you have a mushroom strain genetically identical to the one you want. Some growers start with spores, which are more like seeds. Tissue cultures, also called agar cultures or test tube cultures, of various species of mushroom can be bought from commercial suppliers or they can be started from fresh mushrooms.
- Using a bit of the tissue culture to begin some spawn (a kind of mushroom starter), which is usually grown on a small quantity of sterilised grain or sawdust.
- Using the spawn to introduce mushroom mycelium into an organic material chosen to support the formation of mushrooms.
- Getting the actual mushrooms to form and grow once the substrate has been completely colonised by mushroom mycelium.
Each organic material requires a different procedure to render it free of competing organisms. Compost is the most time-consuming material to prepare, requiring a couple of weeks to mature. It needs to be allowed to heat to a temperature that neutralises harmful species, without letting it get so hot that it kills beneficial microbes. The compost is not allowed to go completely through its natural cycle. Instead it is harvested somewhat early, when it is full of white actinomycetes bacteria that provide the nutrients that mushrooms love. The grower cools the compost, adds some gypsum (calcium sulfate) and mixes in the mushroom spawn.
Woody materials and straw can be prepared quickly than compost. Traditionally, these materials required a heat treatment, such as pressure sterilisation, steam pasteurisation, or hot water steeping, to eliminate competing organisms. The peroxide method has now added ways to prepare some substrates without heating. It can also prevent later contamination by airborne molds and bacteria, so using a material that is compatible with hydrogen peroxide addition can save a lot of trouble. For wood-decomposing mushrooms, wood pellet fuel, which disintegrates into sawdust when treated with boiling water, works very well in this regard, and so does wheat straw.
Getting mushrooms to form
The compost-loving species require a different procedure from the wood-loving mushrooms when it comes time to get the mushrooms to form. The compost-lovers usually need to have a soil-like layer called “casing”, applied to the top of the culture, once the mushroom tissue has fully colonised the compost. The soil-like layer provides a reservoir of moisture, and it creates a low-nutrient zone (compared to the compost), signaling the mushroom tissue to start forming the fruiting bodies. The tiny mushroom buttons then begin to form in the casing layer. The grower keeps the casing moist by lightly watering it as the mushrooms enlarge.