Ghana's Mushroom Crisis: Oyster Mushroom Farmers Seek Solutions

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Ghana, West Africa, has 5,000-7,000 trained oyster mushrooms growers. Where are the mushrooms? Oyster mushrooms are grown on bags of composted sawdust. The spawn, or seed, that produces the mushrooms is faulty. The mushrooms themselves are not affected and sales are good, but bag producers fall short of farmers' needs for enough bags for sustainable income. BemCom Director Bernard Bempah has a two-fold solution. The US-based Mushrooms in Ghana Project seeks funds to support Bempah's efforts.

Bernard Bempah is a man of vision, determination, integrity and good will. If anyone can bring the mushroom industry in Ghana to a profitable level of production, he's the one.

'Oyster mushrooms can end hunger in Africa,' has been touted for years, and Africa has bloomed with oyster mushroom production. Ghana, in West Africa, has the perfect climate and natural resources to grow these mushrooms, which contain protein, vitamins, and minerals. However, a serious crisis in the Ghanaian oyster mushroom industry hampers thousands of farmers throughout the country.

Mushrooms in Ghana Project is an effort of Douglass and Dr. Sandra Williams to raise $20,000. The project will support existing oyster mushroom production and will help expand farmers' crops to include shiitake mushrooms. The Williams, shiitake farmers from the US (Lost Creek Mushroom Farm), were in Ghana last year as volunteers with OICI, Opportunities Industrialization Centers International. The Williams want to bring Bernard Bempah, Director of at BemCom Youth Enterprises/Association to the US to visit spawn producers and shiitake farms. BemCom is an alternative agricultural training and resource center in Techiman where the Williams' volunteered. BemCom trains about 600 farmers a year.

Oyster mushrooms are grown in bags of composted sawdust. The bags are sterilized, then inoculated (impregnated) with mushroom spawn, or seed, placed inside the bag. The spawn grows for several months until all the sawdust is white with mycelia, the growth that produces the mushroom. Then the bags are ready for farmers to buy, stack in their cropping houses and grow mushrooms. The bags produce for about three months and then must be replaced.

The bags can become contaminated and may develop only 1/3 to 1/2 of the mycelia. The affected bags must be discarded, a significant loss for bag producers and farmers who inoculate their own bags. At one point various forms of contamination wiped out 60% of 2,400 maturing bags at BemCom.

The mushrooms themselves are not contaminated and not affected. The bags simply won't grow mycelia or won't grow enough to be cost effective.

'Mushroom sales are good,' according to Dr. Mary Obodai, mycologist at the Food Research Institute in Accra, the major supplier of spawn in Ghana and a training centre for aspiring mushroom farmers. 'But bag producers can't meet the demand.'

A full cropping house can create a reliable, year-round sustainable income for the farmers, most of them women and women's cooperatives. But until the contamination problem is resolved, Ghana's farmers can't get enough bags to make their operations worthwhile. 'The shortage is throughout all of Ghana,' Dr. Obodai told Dr. Williams. 'Many farmers have stopped growing mushrooms.'

According to Dr. Obodai there are currently 5,000-7,000 trained mushroom farmers in Ghana. 'In 2002 we had 5,000 people growing oyster mushrooms.'

Where are the mushrooms?
Dr. Obodai stated that the problem is in the spawn..

'Where is the spawn contamination coming from?' Dr. Williams asked Dr. Obodai.

'Unfortunately, some of it comes from here,' the scientist replied.

Despite Dr. Obodai's best efforts and that of other scientists, the contamination and its correction remain mysteries.

She would like to see more trained spawn producers, such as Bernard Bempah, so that the supply of spawn bags could be more reliable. 'Spawn production requires a large capital investment in laboratory equipment and support is difficult to obtain.'

Bernard Bempah has the same vision - and the same frustration.

Solutions: New Spawn and Shiitake Mushrooms
Bempah intends to remedy the shortage of bags, a critical, costly, and debilitating situation for BemCom and its member farmers. He has been trained in spawn and mushroom production in South Korea and in the US. If he has the scientific equipment to do it, he can improve the spawn for growers across Ghana.

Bempah also wants to introduce shiitake mushrooms to Ghanaian farmers and the Ghanaian diet. High in protein, low in fat, and having significant health benefits, the shiitake, pronounced 'she-TAH-kee,' is the second-most highly consumed mushroom worldwide.

The NGO is the only Ministry of Food and Agriculture-approved mushroom training and resource center in the northern part of Ghana. BemCom was awarded the 2002 Commonwealth Youth Service Award, African Region, and named 2002 and 2003 Regional and District Best Mushroom Farmer Awards.

'If we can find support for my trip, it will change the mushroom industry in Ghana,' Bempah said.

Shiitake Mushrooms.
'The shiitake mushrooms are grown on logs and won't be affected by sawdust contamination,' Dr. Williams said. 'Shiitakes will grow in the rainy season and supplement both the farmers' incomes and the Ghanaian diet. Farmers can dry the shiitakes and the mushrooms will hold their flavor and nutrition for years.'

Second only to meat in the amount of protein by volume, shiitakes are valued for their rich flavor and meaty texture. They stimulate and strengthen the immune system. Shiitakes can be used as a supplemental protein or as a complete protein substitute for meat.

Shiitakes have several advantages over oyster mushrooms. Where oyster mushrooms have a shelf-life of only 3 to 5 days, fresh shiitakes will keep up to 3 weeks. Shiitakes require less water and less labor. And, according to Bempah, 'they will be less expensive to raise in Ghana.'

Dr. Williams has faith that the project will create a way forward through the oyster mushroom crisis. "Bernard Bempah is a man of vision, determination, integrity and good will. If anyone can bring the mushroom industry in Ghana to a profitable level of production, he's the one."

Mushrooms in Ghana Project is partnering with the non-profit Magical Child Foundation. US donations are tax deductible. Donations made out to Magical Child Foundation can be mailed to Mushrooms in Ghana Project, Lost Creek Mushroom Farm, PO Box 520, Perkins, OK 74059, USA. To contribute with a credit card online, go to http://www.mushroomsinghana.org, http://www.magicalchild.org (projects) or phone 1-800-792-0053, 001-405-547-2234 outside the US.

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