John Muchura, 40, ventured into the mushroom business out of necessity.
At his small farm in Juja, Kiambu, he has set up four units of mushroom planting rooms measuring 15 by 25 feet.
When the Enterprise visited his farm, he was busy filling clear plastic bags with mature compost material, which he then mixes with mushrooms. [seeds].
Casual workers then transport each bag to a nearby controlled-environment earth house-like structure for germination.
The rooms are hermetically sealed with blankets and foam mattresses to maintain a certain temperature and humidity. For the next four to six weeks, the structure will be tightly sealed to prevent light from entering the grow room, which could hinder growth.
This is the business Mr. Muchura has been running for about 10 years now. Mwamba’s Fresh Products, his company, grows organically grown mushrooms for customers in and around Nairobi.
“When I was employed, I didn’t have enough income to support my family. Having been raised on a farm, farming was an easy fallback,” he says.
Types of mushrooms
On his farm, he plants three varieties of mushrooms; button (white), portobello (brown) and oyster. Growth takes place in phases. In the first phase, compost is made from wheat straw, manure and other materials.
Compost provides the nutrients necessary for the production of mushrooms and serves as a basis for their growth. The compost should be turned every two to three days to allow the manure and wheat straws to rot and for the nutrients to concentrate.
After seven to 14 days, the compost is considered complete when the mixture smells good, turns dark brown, and the straws become soft.
In the second phase, the compost is pasteurized to kill bacteria and weed seeds as well as to remove ammonia.
“After phase two, the substrate is ready for mushroom mycelium growth,” says Mr Muchura, an electrical engineering graduate from Kenya Polytechnic, now the Technical University of Kenya.
Mycelium is a loose root-like structure of a mushroom that provides energy and nutrition to the mushrooms.
On his small farm, he usually harvests about 500 kilograms (per season), which lasts between a month and a half and two months. “I usually sell 90% of my produce at City Park Market, grocery stores, Westlands and Highridge in Parklands, Nairobi, and hotels,” he says.
As the demand for mushrooms increases, driven by a health-conscious generation, more and more farmers like Mr. Muchura are getting into the business. Mushrooms are increasingly becoming an alternative protein to the popular red meat.
Demand is estimated at 500 tons a year against a supply of 476 tons, according to the National Farmers Information Service. Mr. Muchura says he brings in between 400 and 600 shillings per kilo of mushroom, depending on the season.
This means that from his four growing structures, he earns 1.2 million shillings every two months and 7.2 million shillings annually, before expenses.
Sales are highest during the months of Ramadan and Indians and Muslims are its biggest customers.
He is, however, quick to warn that growing mushrooms is an expensive business to start and maintain.
While wheat straws can cost between 150 and 200 shillings (during the normal season), it can go up to 300 and 350 shillings in the low season.
Also, at Sh150,000 for a one unit mushroom house, the cost of production is not cheap.
For example, if it produces 500 kg and the farmer sells it at 500 shillings per kg, that translates to 250,000 shillings per unit. This means that the farmer will make a profit of 100,000 shillings.
“Loss usually happens and when it does happen it’s usually around 100%,” he warns.
“In general, growing mushrooms is an expensive business because there is an art to making compost and they usually grow to specific parameters unlike any other plant.”
Unlike other plants, he says fungi are susceptible to attack by moulds, yeasts, weeds, snails and rodents, which impact yields.
“Weeds can grow in mushroom houses without proper ventilation. Mushroom flies and fruit flies destroy vegetative states,” he says, advising farmers to set up fly traps.
Without patience, he says, one can quickly lose interest since the business is labor and energy intensive.
To minimize income risk, he trains farmers in Kajiado and Machakos, among others, at a fee ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 shillings per day, depending on location and workload.
Mr. Muchura hopes to break into the export market.
“We haven’t found an opportunity to export but we have the capacity if an opportunity arises,” he says.