The Rwandan government, in their 2005 National Nutrition Policy, along with international development agencies, has proposed a multi-pronged approach to eradicate malnutrition. One of the facets of this policy is to encourage the production and dissemination of nutrient rich foods, the promotion and dissemination of highly productive agricultural technologies, agricultural policy leading to improvement of food security and income generation and the promotion of less labor intensive agricultural technologies.

We propose to insert ourselves in this framework by enabling the emergence of a countrywide, community-based mushroom industry, and doing so on a for profit basis.

Though wild mushrooms are sought after as a food source, mushrooms as a commercial crop are today essentially absent from the Rwandan economy. We believe they could be widely cultivated, with moderate investment, by farmers and cooperatives across the country. They provide extremely high yields per hectare and have superior nutritional qualities.

Mushrooms are good sources of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, often exceeding levels registered in most widely consumed cereal staples. They have been widely advocated for inclusion in human nutrition in the tropical rural areas and especially where cereals or pulses are staples and meat may be rare or too expensive for a greater portion of the population. For example, UNICEF in 1990 recommended a wide inclusion of mushrooms in the diets as a strategy for fighting child malnutrition in some parts of Tanzania.

In terms of the amount of crude protein, mushrooms rank below meat, but well above most other foods, including milk, which is a staple of the Rwandan diet. More importantly, mushroom protein contains all the nine essential amino acids that are required by man but cannot be synthesized by the human body. In addition, mushrooms are a relatively good source of phosphorus, iron and vitamins including thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. They are low in calories, carbohydrates and calcium. Mushrooms also contain a high proportion of unsaturated fat.

Human nutrition is complex and no single food source will provide all the answers. What is certain however, is that adding nutrient-rich, protein-rich mushrooms to the population’s dietary mix will contribute to a more balanced diet and lessened malnutrition.

There has been much promotion of the concept of small-scale farming of mushrooms in a variety of African countries, including in sub-Saharan Africa. This has generally been done at the instigation of development organizations (NGOs, World Bank institutions, etc.). These development players recognize that mushroom cultivation can provide farming communities with alternative sources of food and/or income. However, these efforts, at least in our experience, have been undermined by the fact that farming mushrooms with acceptable yields is actually a complex proposition. The tools being put in the hands of farming communities are not up to the task, and these efforts at development have met with little success.

The mushroom selected for such small-scale farming is Pleurotus ostreatus, the oyster mushroom. The reason is that, unlike other mushroom species, Pleurotus has proven very adaptable to a wide range of organic substrates to grow on. Much research and experimentation has been conducted into acceptable substrates. To cite only a few, Pleurotus has been shown to grow on substrates as diverse as wheat or bean straw, sugarcane bagasse, banana leaves, corn cobs, cotton waste, coffee pulp, sawdust or shredded newspaper.

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