A mushrooming industry

2009-09-09 00:00

Entrepreneurial interest in mushroom production is steadily gaining momentum in and around the greater Pietermaritzburg and midlands region, five years after the KZN government reached out to experts in China in an effort to stimulate and enhance food security and local economic development efforts in the province. The Witness has encountered two interesting “case studies”, driven by midlands men operating in contrasting circumstances. The oyster mushroom appears to be the mushroom of choice during the current phase of local mushroom growing. The main method used to produce the mushrooms revolves around the use of a cost-effective log initially developed in China, which can produce a variety of types of mushrooms. According to one midlands agriculture expert, an investment of R20 000 is enough to begin producing mushrooms using these logs.

Thulani Bhengu

A RADIOGRAPHER by profession, 66-year-old Thulani Bhengu has returned to his family home in Sweetwaters ­after many years in Gauteng ­pursuing business interests, ­although he still travels to Johannesburg to conduct business.

His aim is to fight desperate poverty and the widespread sense of hopelessness prevalent throughout the community he grew up in, using the revenue from mushroom production to implement a proposed project he calls the Sweetwaters Agricultural Project.

The idea is to provide the people of the area with free seedlings, on condition that they sell their harvest back to Bhengu.

He is making full use of the family home and property covering almost one acre, by cultivating vegetables, flowers and oyster mushrooms.

“This gives me time to look for the markets for the produce. Plus, I need to be guaranteed of the quality of the produce and by providing the seedlings myself, I can do so. We can’t afford farms due to the cost of land. My main aim is to create a case study. I might not be able to recoup the money now, but maybe I will make a profit in a year from now,” explains Bhengu.

Within his company, Thulani Agricultural Solutions, lies a project that encapsulates his ­vision, Sweetwaters Opportunities Unlimited Projects (Soup).

He is currently working with five families.

The innovative Bhengu, whose seedlings are grown in old tyres, took up mushroom production in May, after hearing about the KwaZulu-Natal government’s vision. The venture has not been without its challenges.

“For the past few weeks I have been harvesting six to eight kilograms per day but I have virtually no markets to sell to,” he says.

However, Bhengu has already established the basic infrastructure needed to produce a modest supply of oyster mushrooms in a neat 50-square-metre room on his property. He stores the mushroom logs on shelves made from bamboo in a dark environment, while ensuring that the temperature is kept relatively constant.

“This project can fund my ­other ideas. Oyster mushrooms are more sought-after and ­expensive. Access to markets and funding are my main ­concerns right now.”

Clive Whittington

CLIVE Whittington, a rose farmer in Merrivale, is actually a surveyor by profession whose day job now entails managing the IT (Information Technology) department of a JSE-listed, Hillcrest-based company.

There are three months in winter, between July and September, when roses are not grown, he explains.

This prompted him to explore other revenue streams during this quiet period.

“This was the initial thinking, but mushrooms are grown all year round so the idea is to explore this opportunity.”

He says that apart from the logs, three other key ingredients are necessary.

They are humidity, airflow ­(oxygen) and relative darkness.

Although Whittington has about 2 000 logs in his room, he is in the process of building three more rooms in order to ensure that he has a consistent supply of mushrooms.

“We’ve got to quadruple our yield to make it viable. That’s a further R80 000 worth of logs [and three more sheds]. You need to be able to supply [shops] ­regularly. We’re selling at about R52/kg and from then on, it ­depends on the retailer.”

Interestingly, the next three rooms will be made out of hay, wire-mesh and hessian material, secured with plastering.

“Summer is a big challenge with the high and fluctuating temperatures. This room [made of hay] is able to keep the temperature relatively constant through the day. Two rooms will come on stream next month.”

“I’m prepared to try … [to] put in some capital and see how it goes. We’re trying to keep it as natural as possible. The logs last [can produce for] about three months. The objective is to get a yield of 75% or 750 grams per one kilogram log, but the average is about 500 grams per log.”

Whittington, who started his fledgling venture in February, produces a yield every two weeks and already supplies mushrooms to produce shops in Howick and Pietermaritzburg.

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