Pennsylvania State University in the US has been building its ties with mushroom-growers based in Malawi. In 2015, burgeoning oyster mushroom farmer, Lucy Chimombo, reached out to the Malawi office of Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA). This Washington D.C-based non-profit organisation works to support and stimulate economic growth in rural communities by giving agripreneurs access to the private sector.
Through working with CNFA, she met Mwayi Sinda – who is the program coordinator of the Farmer-to-Farmer Program funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
After spending some time mentoring Chimombo and learning about the challenges she was facing, Sinda reached out to the Mushroom Research Center in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
By this point, Chimbobo had been growing her oyster mushrooms for years, but found that most consumer markets had a demand for white button mushrooms; a species she was not adequately trained to grow by herself. This was one of her prime challenges when Sinda reached out to Penn State to request assistance.
Paying it forward
John Pecchia, a mushroom scientist and centre manager, frequently imparts his knowledge of mushroom production and disease management with industry professionals, mostly in Pennsylvania, the United States, and Canada. The request from CNFA was fraught with difficulties, the most serious of which was Covid-19-related travel limitations. Regardless, Pecchia answered the phone to assist Chimombo.
“It is very challenging to assess growing rooms, troubleshoot and help somebody remotely,” said Pecchia, who is also an associate research professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology. “However, having the opportunity to positively impact growers, especially in developing countries that don’t have extension resources, is important.”
Pecchia met with Chimombo via Zoom meetings, during which he examined her current setup and addressed composting, substrate preparation, contamination control, and mushroom growing chamber management. He also gave her advice on contamination, which is a major issue in mushroom gardening since it lowers the output of high-quality mushrooms.
One step ahead
Chimombo followed Pecchia’s advice, which resulted in increased productivity and revenue. She plans to start growing button mushrooms in June, utilising the skills she learned from Pecchia. Because few smallholder farmers in her region grow button mushrooms, she believes she will have a competitive edge.
“Most of the big shops and hotels import mushrooms from South Africa and Zambia, hence the need for intensive production locally,” she said. “For my business to meet consumer demand, I needed help to overcome low production and poorly operating infrastructure. John has helped me so much, and I am grateful for the education.”
With the support of a $40 000 grant from the United Nations Development Programme, Chimombo will build on her achievements. The funding will allow her to construct more mushroom dwellings. After the facilities are completed, CNFA will continue to offer her training.
Pecchia stated he would be ready to help if they needed it.
“Penn State is a recognised leader in mushroom science, so growers nationally and internationally look to us to develop the best practices in mushroom production and help solve problems,” he said. “It’s imperative that we share our knowledge with growers everywhere to elevate their businesses and the mushroom industry.”
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