Uganda is one of the poorest countries in the world, making life for its most vulnerable inhabitants even tougher. But one orphanage caring for abandoned children has been giving fresh hope as part of a larger project aimed to help Ugandans improve their livelihoods, by growing mushrooms.
Dr Pradeep Malakar visiting the orphanage in June 2015
The Window of Life Babies Home in Masindi was set up in 2011 to provide desperately needed care and facilities for abandoned, neglected or abused children, some just days old. As well as providing safety, nutrition and care, the home has funded medical expenses, as well as paying for their education. It is funded by the Window of Life Foundation in Poland, and by a local taxi driver, Joseph Tibagamba, but to meet the costs of the house it currently rents, the home has been trying to grow its own food, selling any excess at market to boost income.
Now, the home is growing, eating and selling mushrooms, thanks to a project led by the Institute of Food Research, and funded by the Department for International Development (DFID) through the Agricultural Technology Transfer programme.
The mushrooms have provided an extra source of nutritious protein for the children.
“Since production started, children like very much to eat mushroom. It is mostly served to them a sauce and sometimes porridge, which they like so much” said Joseph Tibagamba.
On top of this, the home has also been able to produce more mushrooms to sell to local people, and they have attracted more and more customers by word of mouth. They are also regularly supplying a local supermarket, and two hotels. This makes 500,000 – 1,000,000 Ugandan shillings a month (£100-£200), enough to pay for the school fees for a term for all of the children of nursery age. The children have become involved in the mushroom production, helping them learn new skills. And the good quality of the mushrooms has helped spread the work about the work of the home, increasing their visitors.
Packaging mushrooms for selling
Mushrooms haven’t been a major Ugandan food crop, but they are a good source of nutrition, and can be grown on very little land, without needing a lot of inputs. This makes them ideal for improving diets and providing an additional income source, but transferring large scale mushroom production to rural, undeveloped areas has been difficult.
Overcoming these problems needed a collaborative approach. Researchers led by Dr Pradeep Malakar from the Institute of Food Research on the Norwich Research Park teamed up with colleagues from Makerere University, Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI), Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Guizhou Academy of Agricultural Science and a Ugandan community organization, Mushroom Training and Resource Centre, to provide the facilities, material and training needed to enable Ugandans to start mushroom production.
The project helped establish a safe, reliable source of mushroom spawn, suitably adapted for the climate of Uganda. The spawn needs to be free from potentially dangerous bacteria, like Clostridium botulinum, and research conducted by botulinum scientists at IFR, which is strategically supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, has shown that risk of contamination is virtually non-existent. IFR also helped find ways of reusing wastes from the mushroom production process, adding extra value. The wastes can be used as compost, but can also be used as fuel for a gasifier stove for sterilizing the mushroom growth medium. The gasifier stove was designed by the project partners to be constructed from readily available materials, and use renewable biomass materials as fuels, making it sustainable and accessible.
Developing the tools for mushroom production is useless without the training needed to use them, and the project has been active in supporting this. A mushroom biology course was developed at Makerere University, as well as programmes to help Ugandan researchers develop improved mushroom strains. A mushroom cultivation facility house was constructed in the grounds of the Makerere Botanical Gardens, helping students get practical knowledge of mushroom cultivation.
Staff at the orphanage preparing the mushroom substrate
The programme has also set up training for individual growers wanting to start cultivating mushrooms, which is vital to the overall success of the project. Maria Goretti, the administrator of the Window of Life Babies Home, was one of the people to attend one training session organised by the Bunyoro Community development Association. She has led the mushroom production in the home, but this has also involved other staff at the home, keen to help in the mushroom production for the home, but also to learn important new skills.
This education and empowerment has been seen elsewhere in the project. A number of programs, like the orphanage, have been taken up by women. There is a great gender imbalance in Ugandan land ownership, with only 7% of Ugandan landowners being women, but because mushroom production doesn’t need land, and is accessible to all, it has particularly appealed to women. Three quarters of the 10,000 people who have received mushroom spawn, advice or other support from the Mushroom Training Resource Centre have been female, mostly to help feed their own families and secure valuable extra income. But this is good evidence that the project has boosted women’s empowerment in Uganda, helping them gain skills and knowledge of both farming, but also financial management.
Although the AgriTT project is now nearly at an end, it is hoped that its impact can be extended and mushroom production can be further encouraged and supported across the country. The big challenge to this is the supply of safe, good quality mushroom spawn. UIRI, one of the partners trained in the program, is looking to set up mushroom spawn production enterprises, to provide sustainable, profitable and accountable suppliers of spawn, free from the problems of contamination and poor hygiene seen in unregistered local laboratories. Coupled with support for more stable and coordinated marketing, the hope is that the program will have led to a genuine improvement in the livelihoods of the people in Uganda, just as it has given hope to the orphans of the Window of Life Babies Home.
IFR is looking for further funding opportunities, in collaboration with Chinese partners, to continue its efforts to improve the lives of marginal communities in Africa.