Bryan Sobel grad is trying to help women in the Rwandan town of Butare through what some would say is an unusual method: growing mushrooms.
Sobel first taught women in Butare mushroom cultivation methods for two weeks in December 2012. The trip was one of many that Sobel has embarked on to promote international development, from a stay in Bangladesh to a garden-based learning service trip to Belize over this past spring break.
Sobel, who specializes in mushroom production and cultivation, promoted the nutritional and economic benefits of one specific variety — oyster mushrooms, or Pleurotus ostreatus — during his stay in Rwanda.
Sobel spent one week traveling to various mushroom farms and shared his knowledge with growers in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. There, he said, he observed different methods of mushroom cultivation than what is typically seen in the United States.
"[In Rwanda], mushrooms are cultivated in a unique style. They are contained in spawn packets, which are then buried in the ground,” Sobel said.
Sobel then traveled south to the city of Butare for his second week in Rwanda, where he aided members of a local women’s cooperative group. The women who participated in the program were all recruited because they had a child in their family suffering from malnutrition, according to Sobel.
Sobel said the cooperative serves an important function in the rural community and its inhabitants.
"The cooperative is formally recognized by the government, and serves to empower rural communities by allowing them to govern themselves,” Sobel said. "Typically, these cooperatives are given a savings account by the government that growers can use to promote micro-credit activities.”
Sobel trained the women growers in the basics of mushroom cultivation, and helped the women grow mushrooms.
According to Sobel, the pilot plot of oyster mushrooms was located next to the community church so that it would be highly visible to members of the community.
He said oyster mushrooms were chosen because they are easy to grow and come with a variety of health and nutritional benefits.
"[Oyster mushrooms] are a complete protein with little fat, and also contain compounds that have been associated with a reduction in the risk of certain chronic and degenerative diseases. Mushrooms also contain a number of micronutrients and minerals, and may help to improve iron status in nutrient-limited households,” Sobel said.
Sobel was involved with the project through the Trellis Fund of the U.S. Agency for International Development, through which he connected with the Sustaining Rwanda Youth Organization. The mission of SRYO is to raise money to distribute among individuals in the community, according to Sobel.
Prof. Chris Wien, horticulture, who is involved with international agriculture and rural development studies at Cornell, served as Sobel’s advisor for the trip.
"[Sobel] embarked on this trip on his own initiative,” Wien said. "He was assigned to the women’s cooperative in Rwanda because of his personal interests.”
Sobel, whose interests lay in international and enterprise development, said he believes that one of the biggest problems in communities such as the one he worked with in Butare is that community members sometimes become dependent on local organizations.
"Some NGOs in this region may feel that their job is to bring in money that they can distribute among [the] individuals, [so their] mission may be more focused on money than on the lives of their stakeholders,” Sobel said. "There is difficulty in empowering the stakeholders, because it is based on a model where they are already given the inputs rather than learning how to obtain them.”
Sobel added that he believes the effects of teaching women to cultivate their own mushrooms are beneficial to both their own livelihood and their health.
"Mushroom cultivation has the potential to become a regional enterprise for those who are looking to support their families, or can serve as a food source and improve nutritional status,” Sobel said.
Wien said that even though the trip was only two weeks long, the impact it had on Sobel was long-lasting and profound.
"The trip helped Sobel to decide whether this type of work is meaningful and something he would like to engage in in the future,” Wein said.
Wein added that the trip helped provide Sobel a perspective of the developing world.
"[The trip] could provide him with more insight on what it takes to make a change in countries such as Rwanda,” he said.