Kenya’s economy largely depends on agriculture; about 80% of the population depends on agriculture for livelihood. Despite the fact that almost half of the country’s population suffer from food insecurity, the potential for increased agricultural production remains unexploited.
The increase in population and the diminishing sizes of farms have resulted in a continued decline of soil fertility and associated land degradation, culminating in decreased land productivity and increased number of people living below the poverty line.
Diversification of agriculture to high value crops and transformation of smallholder agriculture from subsistence to commercial business enterprises offer good promising options for revitalization of agriculture and wealth creation among the rural poor.
Mushrooms are a high value crop with great potential for income generation and enterprise diversification and can be of great benefit to people alleviating poverty especially those living in the rural areas of the country.
Apart from Africa, the other parts of the world consume mushrooms widely. World production of edible mushrooms is estimated at 14 million tones and their cultivation is centuries old not only for food but has always been used for its medicinal nature/ contents.
In Kenya the cultivation of mushroom is still in its infancy stage and the growth rate has been very slow. Historically mushrooms were seen as a luxurious foodstuff reserved for the affluent and their production is a guarded preserve of a few large- scale farmers who could afford the capital and the equipment to cultivate the crop.
There was also little awareness on mushroom production and utilization, and the market prices were high and out of reach for most Kenyans. However all that has changed since now both the rich and the poor people have turned to mushroom cultivation for food security, income generation, nutrition and medicinal factor.
Status of mushroom production
There are two main types of mushrooms commercialised in Kenya (Agaricus bisporus and pleurotus species). The button mushroom is grown exclusively by large scale farmers since its cultivation is highly sophisticated.
The oyster mushroom which was introduced in 2003 is the species popular with small-scale farmers owing to its ease of product, high yields, wide fruiting temperature range, superior flavour, high nutritional content and low capital investment.
Commercial mushroom farms in Kenya include; Olive mushrooms, Rift valley mushrooms, Agridutt limited and Devani and Kanchan mushrooms.
There are also other small farms producing mushrooms but, the four farms mentioned above sell their produce in the supermarkets. Small scale farms usually sell their produce in the hotels and restaurants within the country.
Establishment of traditional commercial scale farms requires a huge initial capital investment, so smaller farmers are hard to grow mushrooms in a commercial scale.
The commercial farms technical expertise comes from personnel who have been trained abroad in countries where mushroom farming is popular.
To start a medium sized farm the grower requires capital for construction of mushrooms houses, purchase of the land, purchase of the machines used for compost preparation, installation of air conditioners, acquisition of spawn, educating staff and many other cost related to mushroom production.
These costs could be lower for a person who had the knowledge about mushroom cultivation because many of the required systems could be improvised to lower the initial investment.
Many farmers in Kenya are interested and willing to venture in the art of mushroom cultivation but, they lack the capital to cultivate the crop and cannot afford to hire trained personnel.
The greatest problem however, is the lack of availability of mushroom spawn. Kenya does not have a spawn manufacturing company therefore, making the interested farmers to be left with no choice but to either import the spawn or use spawn which generally is not up to the mark.
Dr. Muthamia from Egerton University emphasized that mushroom production compared to beekeeping, much has not been done about it at Egerton University and that a project that had been started in collaboration with Nanjing Agricultural University came to a halt due to reliance of spawn from Nanjing.
As far as mushroom production is concerned in Kenya, the most important thing is quality spawn. Successful culture at Egerton University will only be possible if spawn is produced in house and the extra spawn sold or made available to farmers for promotion and demonstration. This has been done with success at Punjab Agricultural University only that spawn is sold at nominal rates.