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Faces behind mushroom boom in city

Mushroom farmer, Maurice Ikonya with a colleague after delivering his produce to the Naivas supermarket, Westlands branch, in Nairobi. The supermarket is one of the main customers of the Mushroom Growers Association of Kenya, of which Ikonya is the vice-chairman. 

Beautiful white mushrooms packed in purple punnets sit pretty on the shelves of Naivas supermarket, Westlands branch, in Nairobi.

The mushrooms are appealing to the eye and they look appetising, certainly why they have found space on the shelves of the giant retail outlet.

The products are the handiwork of Maurice Ikonya and tens of other young farmers, who supply them through their association to the retail chain.

The supermarket is one of the main customers of the Mushroom Growers Association of Kenya, of which Ikonya is the vice-chairman.

“We get 250-300kg of mushrooms every week from our 100 members in 23 counties and distribute them to supermarkets and hotels where we are listed as suppliers,” he says.

When the Seeds of Gold meets Ikonya, 28, he is at the supermarket delivering the day’s order.

 “I have to finish this work and return to the farm,” he says as he hands the package and waits for the order to be assessed. “Each one of us farms individually but we sell the bulk of our produce as a group.”

Soon, we leave for his mushroom farm in Kangemi, Nairobi, where he has erected a 10-by-15-foot semi-permanent house on a part of an eighth of an acre.

The structure hosts some 300 plastic bags with 645-665 mushroom plants that are at various stages of growth.

“Some are ready for harvest. I plant them at different times so that I harvest continuously,” says Ikonya.

Inside the mud-walled structure, Ikonya grows the mushrooms in plastic bags. Some of them are neatly arranged on the floor and others on wooden shelves he has erected.

“I started the business over a year ago with Sh150,000 from my savings,” says Ikonya, who holds a Diploma in Project Management from the Kenya Institute of Management Studies.

“The money was enough to purchase 50 bales of wheat straw, cotton seed cake, molasses, urea and chicken manure to make the substrate on which the mushrooms grow.”

LEFT TO COMPOST FOR ONE MONTH

He also used part of the money to establish the mushroom house, which he says should be well-aerated with moderate light.

“Mushrooms generally require a dark room since they mature faster in darkness, and can sprout anywhere as long as the conditions are favourable,” says Ikonya, who grows the button variety and trained in mushroom production at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

He sources the mushroom seeds (spawn) from South Africa, noting obtaining them locally is a challenge. It costs him Sh11,000 to import 10 kilos of spawn.

Before planting the spawn, the growing media must be left to compost for one month as it is turned and watered.

“The compost is usually hot. It kills bacteria and mites that could be a source of diseases. The mixture must then be cooled to about 25 degrees Celsius before the spawn is planted. I then add virgin forest soil that I purchase from Kereita Nyandarua County for better results,” he offers.

The spawn sprouts after some 15 days and the temperature should be regulated to about 180C. The mushrooms are ready for harvesting in about two months and one harvests daily for close to two months.

“Each bag gives me between 1kg-2kg of mushrooms during the harvesting season. If the market is favourable, I sell the mushrooms for up to Sh1,000 per kilo,” he adds, noting a punnet is currently going for Sh175.

Besides Naivas supermarket, the mushrooms are also sold at Jacaranda Hotel and groceries in Nairobi, but Ikonya and the rest of the members of the association are currently spreading wings to Nakuru, Kajiado, Kisumu and Laikipia.

“Mushroom is a good crop because it does not depend on the weather. They are climate-smart plants which do well in modified climate such as greenhouses. Moreover, mushroom reduces carbon dioxide concentration,” he says.

Ikonya farms the button mushroom species because it is popular among customers and has high nutritional value.

“Growing mushrooms is a peculiar experience, unlike other crops, because of the limited space the crop requires to flourish. In addition, the crop thrives indoors without depending entirely on rainfall and sunlight.”

ADD VALUE TO THE PRODUCT

Duncan Gatawa, who also farms mushrooms in Nairobi. He says through their association, new farmers are able to get the help they need for their agribusinesses to take off.

He adds value on the produce by making ‘star fry’, a delicacy made from eight different vegetables and mushrooms.

“One needs the different varieties of vegetables, which are then cleaned and then sliced into tiny pieces together with the mushrooms and then packed in a punnet.”

So what does it take to clinch the supermarket or top hotel business? “The starting point is that you must be able to meet their order by producing in bulk. In our case, we also make routine visits to established businesses to display our samples and convince them that we offer the best produce.”

Duncan Gatawa, who also farms mushrooms, says through the association, new farmers are able to get the help they need for their agribusinesses to take off.

“One is aided to acquire spawn, substrate, find a market, control diseases, and get the relevant knowledge,” he says, noting he has benefited from being a member of the association

Antony Maina, a mushroom specialist trained at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology, says mushrooms are rich in protein and low in fat and cholesterol content.

Ikonya packs mushrooms that he cultivates in his enterprise. he farms the button mushroom species because it is popular among customers and has high nutritional value.

“Button mushroom can also be grown using simple agricultural waste like the water hyacinth that grows in Lake Victoria as research shows that it is a self-thriving plant. But caution needs to be taken against introducing external factors during the early stages of development such as heat, pressure and light.”

He adds that the room should be kept dump at all times by spraying water in the atmosphere so that heat does not destroy the crop before maturity.

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Button VS oyster mushroom types

  1. Two types of mushrooms are grown in the country; button and oyster.
  2. Button is the most popular with its production standing at 476 tonnes annually although the country has a total potential of 100,000 tonnes.
  3. Characteristics of button mushrooms include: A smooth rounded cap; its gills are free from the stem, with the mushroom being pinkish brown at first and later turning dark brown to blackish when mature.
  4. On the other hand, oyster has a fan shaped cap. The cap is smooth with no warts or scales. It is usually white to light brown with firm white flesh.
  5. The gills are white and run down the cap and stem.

-Seeds Of Gold

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