One of the most overlooked delicacy of high nutritional value is mushrooms. And it doesn’t end there; mushrooms are highly marketable and anyone producing them would be eying wealth. Moses Opobo was at Kigali Farms in Gicumbi District to find out the wonders of this fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus.
Like any other crop, mushrooms can (and should) be cultivated. A great deal of people out there are not aware of this simple fact, and the result of this is that we don’t really care about mushrooms, knowing them as those things that just sprout from the soil mysteriously in the night.
The overall result of this has been the tendency to view mushrooms as a rich man’s meal, or rather a delicacy that one should be content tasting every once in a blue moon. Which is partly true, considering the fact that mushrooms are actually more expensive than beef in Kigali!
It is against this backdrop that the idea of the Kigali Farms was mooted, in late 2009, culminating in its establishment in 2011.
Kigali Farms is easily the largest producer and supplier of fresh and processed mushroom products in the country. It does not only cater to consumer needs though, but is also the biggest supplier of oyster mushroom substrate in the country, which it sells to the ever rising number of mushroom farmers and entrepreneurs. Mushroom substrate is basically a collection of cells that produces the vegetative growth in mushrooms.
The substrate farm is located in Byumba, Gicumbi District, in Northern Province, where the company’s 30 employees prepare between five and 10 tonnes of substrate blends every week. These are then pasteurised and inoculated with high quality mushroom spawn, before incubating them for three weeks. The facility has four modern incubation rooms, stacked high with mushroom tubes ready for the market. Each room has a holding capacity of 7,500 tubes.
When I visited the factory on a chilly Thursday morning, the first sight to greet me was that of sacks upon sacks of cotton husks stashed up high, and taking up a huge section of the factory yard. I learnt that the husks are the chief raw material in making mushroom tubes, and that they are imported all the way from Burundi and Uganda.
Further down the compound, below the mushroom growing facility, is another huge stash of wheat stalk, which, I was told, is an essential nutrient for mushroom growth.
This is obviously good news for local wheat farmers in the area since, unlike the cotton husks, the wheat stalks are bought directly from the farmers.
Perhaps the best thing about mushroom farming is that mushrooms grow best on agricultural waste products, which are abundant in Rwanda’s highly agricultural economy. With years of sustained government support to the sector, aggressive awareness campaigns, a cool climate, plenty of water, and thousands of hectares of wheat fields scattered across the country, providing just the right amount of raw material, and scores of farmers, entrepreneurs and cooperatives eager to tap new avenues for income, the country seems to be endowed with many of the necessary competitive advantages to become a leader in mushroom production within East Africa.
This is the cue that Kigali Farms seems intent on picking up.
The mushrooms are grown in huge, dome-shaped facilities that actually look like aircraft hangars from a distance. Once one steps in, the atmosphere changes to a more warehouse feel, as the interior is neat and well-lit by fluorescent tubes. The mushrooms are grown on raised wooden beds to protect the plants from vermin attacks, and also because the soil has to be changed after each harvest, to maintain the right acidity. Otherwise, the mushrooms take 3 months to yield, with each tube producing about 400 grammes of mushroom.
On Thursdays, such as that when I visited is when the fresh mushroom stock is sent to Kigali, where the company operates a mushroom re-purchase and sales office at Kicukiro. From here, the company disburses tonnes of fresh, dried and powdered mushroom products to their major clients-hotels, supermarkets, and private retail customers.
Mushrooms for health and wealth
According to Ashlee Tuttleman, the Development Manager at Kigali Farms, the company’s thrust of operations is three-pronged: "We envision mushrooms as the most cost-effective source of protein for anyone in Rwanda, one that will provide many Rwandans with new opportunities for a livelihood and a healthier diet, simultaneously tackling food insecurity and malnutrition.” "It is possible to do good and still make money.”
The company’s focus so far has been on the cultivation of oyster mushrooms because they can grow year-round, are rich in nutrients, and can produce high yields per acre. Oyster mushrooms are rich in protein, iron, essential amino acids, and vitamins.
It is currently trying to source for major outside capital to build a modern substrate factory in Musanze District. This particular facility will come as good news for wheat farmers in the Northern Province, since they will now be in position to cash in the wheat stalks they previously threw away as trash.
In the future, says Ashlee, the company would like to diversify into alternative substrates such as coffee pulp and rice straw.
The company’s goal: "Wherever you see tomatoes and onions being sold in local markets in Rwanda, we want, in five to 10 years, to see mushrooms.”