Otim thinks wild mushrooms have become rarer because not many parts of the half-acre plot she lives on lie undisturbed long enough to create the right conditions for them to grow. Like many Ugandans in urban areas, she now grows her own vegetables about three times a year, which means the ground is continually turned. The only place mushrooms appear in is the small corner under a mango tree where the dark shadow prevents vegetables from growing.
Vanishing wild mushrooms
The clearing of natural forests to create space for agriculture and human settlement has led to a steep decline in wild mushrooms, which used to be a cheap source of nutrients and were used as medicine by communities across Uganda. A report published in 2019 in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine found that the pressure on natural resources has mostly affected rural communities in Uganda and sub-Saharan Africa, where forests and grasslands that used to be communal have been either fenced off for conservation or leased to large-scale agriculture.
Mushroom farming has empowered women who had no source of income.
In 2021, the journal Food Science & Nutrition published research showing that adding mushrooms to a diet raises the intake of dietary fiber and micronutrients such as vitamin D without significantly increasing calories, sodium or fat.
Wild mushrooms depend on carbon matter provided by dead roots and rotting timber to grow, says Robert Mulebeke, dean of the faculty of agriculture at Kyambogo University. The rotting process can take place only if land is undisturbed for at least two years, he says.
“Today there is very little land left to allow the rotting of wood for the growth of mushrooms,” Mulebeke says.
Female financial empowerment
With the decline in access to wild mushrooms, the Ugandan government sees mushroom farming as a great opportunity to fill the gap while at the same time creating jobs. The government has established 30 centers that offer farmers free training across the country in collaboration with Agromush, an organization that supplies mushroom-growing products and training, says Jane Mayambala, who heads the mushroom growing section at the government-run Uganda Industrial Research Institute.
“We give our farmers scientific knowledge of how to grow the fungi and seeds, which are micro, and this is done by people with microbiological skills to separate the two,” she says.
Mushroom farming has empowered women who had no source of income and used to stay at home while husbands provided for their families, Mayambala says. About 80% of the mushroom farmers the institute trains are women in villages who say they want financial independence, she says.
Ugandans love mushrooms because they are a healthier alternative.
In Kyamuhunga, Bushenyi district, women from Kibazi Women Group, one of the groups Mayambala has trained, meet in the home of a local leader to prepare gardens for their mushroom project. Perry Kengonzi, the group’s chairperson, says the women pool their resources to buy seeds.
As they prepare for planting, the women fetch water and soak bean husks that they sterilize the next morning by hard-boiling to provide an environment free of germs for seed germination, says Innocent Ngabirano, one of the members. Aisha Twikirize says learning how to grow mushrooms has changed the financial trajectory of the women’s families.
“When we sell, we can afford textbooks and school fees for our children,” Twikirize says.
Another member, Gorret Ninsima, says mushroom farming has enabled women to stop depending on men for the daily needs of their families.
“We are self-sufficient now,” she says.
One reason mushroom farming has become attractive is its low startup cost, says Allen Kiiza, head of special projects at the Mushroom Training and Resource Centre in Kyanamira, in southwestern Uganda. Founded in 2007, the center trains about 800 farmers a year and is one of the oldest mushroom farms in Uganda, Kiiza says.
“We use agricultural waste such as coffee husks, sorghum and cotton hulls, and maize cobs as substrate material for growing mushrooms,” Kiiza says.
For many, mushroom farming has been life-changing. Julius Ndyayebwanta’s mushroom farm has 70 hanging bags known in the industry as gardens. He harvests 6 kilograms (13 pounds) worth 60,000 Ugandan shillings ($16) a day, most of which he supplies to homes and restaurants in the area.
“The demand is so high that I’m struggling to keep up,” Ndyayebwanta says.
Mushroom farming has been so good that Ndyayebwanta quit his job at Kitazigolokwa Primary School in Lyantonde district, where he taught English eight years, to venture into it.
“I was always at school,” he says. “All the time being reminded to stay smartly dressed, but they forgot that to be a good example, one needs money to buy nice clothes. When I figured the life of a teacher is a sacrifice, I quit.”
Ndyayebwanta says mushroom farming has also given him more time, which he uses to operate a boda boda, as motorcycle taxis are known in East Africa. Overall, he earns at least double his former teaching salary.
“I am my own boss,” Ndyayebwanta says.
Ugandans love mushrooms because they are a healthier alternative, especially for people dealing with ailments like diabetes, which has become increasingly common in the country. Joseph Kakurungu says he was diagnosed with gout, a disease that stopped him from eating meat.
“I had to revert to eating mushroom for a meal that has no fat, and along the way I got hooked to its soup,” Kakurungu says. “I must add fresh mushrooms to everything I eat.”
Otim, the retired news editor, says farmed mushrooms are a good alternative, but they are not as good as wild ones.
“The taste is fine,” she says. “The fiber is tasty like fatless meat, but the aroma of wild mushrooms makes them a better choice.”