Mushrooms in Ghana: They Heard, ' Where Mushrooms Grow in Africa, There Is No More Hunger' and Volunteered for Farmer-to-Farmer Program

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Shiitake mushroom farmers Sandra and Doug Williams of Lost Creek Mushroom Farm travel to Ghana, West Africa, to work with oyster mushroom growers. The Williams' meet Bernard Bempah, director of Bemcom Youth Enterprises/Association (BYEA), who trains over 500 oyster mushroom farmers a year. Because of problems with the oyster mushrooms, Bempah intends to introduce shiitakes to Ghanian farmers and to the protein-hungry Ghanian diet. The Williams' want to bring Bempah to the US to study commercial shiitake production.

BYEA staff. Bernard Bempah, back row, second from the right.

If we can get support for my trip, it will change the mushroom industry in Ghana.

Doug and Sandra (pronounced Sondra) Williams of Lost Creek Mushroom Farm (http://www.shiitakemushroomlog.com), went to Africa as mushroom experts. Growing shiitake mushrooms on logs since the mid-1980s, and then producing grow-your-own mushroom log kits, shiitakes have taken them from farmers' markets to the Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer program, where their fungus savvy is helping people grow oyster mushrooms, shiitakes, reishi and straw mushrooms in Ghana, West Africa.

The Williams', both in their 60s, had two assignments, one at Jerusalem Farms, located close to Cape Coast, and the other with an alternative agricultural training center, Bemcom Youth Enterprises Association (BYEA) in Techiman, where they built an ongoing relationship with Bernard Bempah, the founder and Director of BYEA. They want to bring Bempah to the US to study commercial shiitake production.

Bempah intends to introduce shiitake log production to Ghanian mushroom farmers and shiitake mushrooms to the Ghanian diet. He said in an e-mail last week to Lost Creek Mushroom Farm, "If we can get support for my trip, it will change the mushroom industry in Ghana."

Bempah, who has had extensive training in oyster mushrooms and basic training in shiitakes, teaches oyster mushroom production to over 500 farmers a year, primarily women. Oyster mushrooms contain 10-30 percent protein, but they are more expensive to grow than shiitakes and have a shelf life of only 3-5 days compared with two weeks for shiitakes. The oyster mushroom process is more susceptible to contamination and many of the 5,000-7,000 growers throughout Ghana are unable to meet the demand.

Doug Williams says, ''In the last ten years Bernard has created a successful program with very limited resources and he's won national recognition for his commitment to training. The women's farms have been especially successful. I'd heard that oyster mushrooms could end malnutrition and hunger in Africa. But it's not turning out that way because of problems with oyster mushroom production. If farmers raised oysters and shiitakes together, it really could happen in Ghana.''

''We're asking for help from people who can contribute money and air miles,'' Sandra adds. A portion of Lost Creek Mushroom Farm's holiday gift log sales will go to support the project.

Help for Mushrooms in Ghana has already come from Frank Michael of The MushroomPeople at The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee. ''I sent e-mails from Ghana asking growers and suppliers for sources of warm-weather spawn to start Bempah's shiitake operation,'' she says. 'Frank donated it! Another Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer carried it to Ghana.'

Shiitake mushrooms are high in protein (second only to meat by volume), low in fat, contain all the essential amino acids and have significant health benefits. The mushrooms can improve general health because they strengthen the immune system and contain anti-viral compounds.

According to shiitake researcher Mark Phillips, "In Japan, a combination of shiitake and reishi mushroom concentrates is the official first line of treatment for cancer and AIDS. Shiitake consumption is high, and Japan has the lowest cancer rate and the highest cancer cure rate in the world.''

It takes a while for the idea of mushroom farming to catch on. ''At first, people pictured us in caves on our hands and knees, picking mushrooms from trays of composted manure,'' says Doug, a stone mason by trade, an artist by education, and an avid mushroom hunter. ''But shiitakes grow on oak logs under shade cloth, outside in shade, or indoors. Bernard is looking at teak. It's plentiful in Ghana and can resist the termites that took his first stand of logs.''

According to Sandra, ''The whole process is organic and ecologically sound. The logs are small-diameter timber that would otherwise be burned or used for low-grade construction materials.'' An Artist in Residence with a PhD in theatre, she has also has a technical writing business. She helped Bempah develop a BYEA business plan and identify marketing strategies.

There is a need not just for mushrooms, but for value-added products as well, meaning the mushrooms have at least one step of processing beyond the raw food. Sandra taught the farmers about drying mushrooms and told growers in Ghana about their experience with value-added products.

''We went from growing shiitakes for local restaurants and food stores to marketing shiitake mushroom log kits. 15 years ago Oklahoma just wasn't ready for exotic mushrooms, so we took that creative leap and started selling log kits on the Internet,'' Sandra says. ''That has made all the difference between bringing shiitakes only to Oklahomans and connecting with people all over the world through our mushrooms.''

Their presence on the web brought Lost Creek Mushroom Farm to the attention of OICI, Opportunities Industrialization Centers International. Its mission is to improve the lives of disadvantaged people through training and sustainable organizational development.

''OICI had been looking for small-scale, alternative agricultural entrepreneurs," Sandra says. 'Volunteeering to share our knowledge was something we'd been wanting to do.'

Volunteering to work with mushrooms in Ghana was literally a dream come true for Sandra. ''30 years ago, I asked for a dream that would tell me something I would need to know for the rest of my life. The message that came was, 'Do things for delight and mastery rather than for terms and profit.' I have always wanted to help people have easier, better lives. I wasn't happy working the business only for money. My favorite parts of Lost Creek Mushroom Farm are talking with our customers, meeting other growers, and speaking about shiitakes and their impressive health benefits.

'A volunteer assignment teaching about mushroom production, marketing, packaging, processing, and value-added products was the perfect opportunity for me to do what I love. The best thing was meeting and working with Bernard Bempah. He is a man of integrity, hard working, a visionary who is deeply committed to moving forward with the BYEA motto, 'Freedom from poverty.'"

''We helped maybe 200 people in Ghana. If Bernard could come here and learn shiitake production, he could help many times that.''

For more of the story and more information go to http://www.shiitakemushroomlog.com. Contributions to bring Bernard Bempah to the US can be sent to Mushrooms in Ghana, Lost Creek Mushroom Farm, PO Box 520, Perkins, OK 74059 or with a credit card by phone, 800-792-0053. Contact the Williams' at mushroomsinghana@yahoo.com.

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