John Muchura, 40, ventured into the business of mushrooms 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 up transparent plastic bags with ripe compost materials, which he then mixes with mushroom spawns [seeds].
Casual workers then carry each bag into a nearby environment-controlled mud-house-like structure for germination.
The rooms are tightly sealed with blankets and mattress foams to maintain a certain temperature and humidity. For the next four to six weeks, the structure will be snugly sealed to prevent light from accessing the growing chamber, which may hamper growth.
This is the business Mr Muchura has been running for about 10 years now. Mwamba's Fresh Products, his firm, has been cultivating organically-grown mushrooms for customers in Nairobi and its environs.
“When I was employed, I was not getting enough income to cater for my family. Having been brought up on a farm, farming was an easy fall-back,” he says.
Types of mushrooms
On his farm, he plants three varieties of mushrooms; button (white), portobello (brown) and oyster. Growing takes place in phases. In the first phase, compost is made using wheat straws, manure, and other materials.
Compost offers nutrients needed for mushrooms to produce and serve as the base for their growth. The compost must be turned after every two to three days to allow the manure and wheat straws to rot and for nutrients to concentrate.
After seven to 14 days, the compost is considered complete when the mixture smells sweet, turns dark brown and straws become pliable.
In phase two, the compost is pasteurised to kill bacteria and weed seeds as well as remove ammonia.
“After phase two, the substrate is ready for the growth of mushroom mycelium,” says Mr Muchura, who has a diploma in electrical engineering from the Kenya Polytechnic, currently the Technical University of Kenya.
Mycelium is a bulk root-like structure of a fungus that provides energy and nutrition to the mushrooms.
From his small farm, he usually harvests about 500 kilogrammes (per season), which lasts between a half to two months. “I usually sell 90 percent of my products at the City Park Market, groceries, Westlands and Highridge in Parklands, Nairobi as well as hotels,” he says.
As demand for mushrooms grows pushed by a health-conscious generation, more farmers like Mr Muchura are taking up the venture. Mushrooms are increasingly becoming an alternative protein to the popular red meat.
Demand is estimated at 500 tonnes per year against a 476 tonne supply, according to the National Farmers Information Service. Mr Muchura says he fetches between Sh400 to Sh600 per kilo of mushroom, depending on the season.
That means that from his four growing structures, he earns Sh1.2 million every two months and Sh7.2 million per year, before deducting expenses
Sales are highest during the months of Ramadan and that Indians and Muslims are his biggest clients.
He is however quick to caution that mushroom farming is an expensive venture to start and sustain.
Whereas wheat straws may cost between Sh150 to Sh200 (during normal season time), this may rise to Sh300 to Sh350 in low seasons.
Also, at Sh150,000 for a one-unit mushroom house, the cost of production is not cheap.
For instance, if it produces 500kg and the farmer sells it as Sh500 per kilo then this translates to Sh250,000 per unit. This means that the farmer will earn a profit of Sh100,000.
“Losses usually arise and when they occur it is usually about 100 percent,” he warns.
“Generally, mushroom farming is an expensive venture because there's an art to making the compost and they usually grow in specific parameters that are not like any other plant.”
Unlike other plants, he says mushrooms are susceptible to mold, yeast, weed, snails and rodent attacks, which impact yields.
“Weeds may grow in mushroom houses without proper ventilation. Mushroom flies and fruit flies destroy vegetative states,” he says, advising farmers to install fly traps.
Without patience, he says, one can quickly lose interest since the business is labour and energy-intensive.
To minimise the income risk, he trains farmers in Kajiado, and Machakos, among others, at a fee ranging from Sh3,000 to Sh5,000 per day, depending on the location and workload.
Mr Muchura hopes to break into the export market.
“We have not found an opportunity to export but we have the capacity if any opportunity comes along,” he says.