7 years ago

Self-employment through mushroom cultivation

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With increasing public awareness of the potential risks and uncertainties over where our food comes from, organic food with its presumed health and environmental advantages has gained popularity among urban Bangladeshis. Increasingly, a section of Bangladesh's urban population is opting for organic and naturally grown food fearing health risks from consuming pesticide and chemical-laden fruits and vegetables. However, there are some conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that have the least amount of pesticides and chemicals. Edible mushroom is one such vegetable. 
Mushrooms, even if conventionally grown, have very little pesticide residue. Moreover, mushroom is a highly nutritious, low calorie vegetable containing proteins, vitamins and minerals. It is a natural source for both food and medicine. Research shows that in mushrooms a wide range of anti-tumor, cardiovascular, antimicrobial and anticancer elements are available. Because of the low fat, low starch and high fiber, mushrooms are also considered conducive to fighting obesity and diabetics. However, except a handful of urban dwellers, the majority of Bangladesh's population are not aware of the health and nutritional benefit of mushroom.  Most people still perceive mushroom as a mere poisonous fungus. Moreover, mushroom is not considered a regular vegetable that can be included in daily diet. Most Bangladeshis who are aware of its edibility consider it a fancy food only to be taken on special occasions or during restaurant outings. 
A joint study of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and BRAC was conducted in 2015 all over Bangladesh to explore the prospects of self employment in agriculture sector with special focus on easily cultivable and profitable crops. During the study, it came out that mushroom could top the list as it is easily cultivable and offers satisfactory profit with high potential for self employment. According to the National Mushroom Development and Extension Centre (NAMDEC), mushroom cultivation is lucrative for pro-poor livelihood as it requires minimum amount of investment and input materials (i.e. wood powder, paddy straw, calcium carbonate and rotten leaves) which are easily available in the local market. Most importantly, mushroom cultivation does not require any outdoor cultivable land, it can be grown indoors. Unlike the majority of crops and vegetables, mushroom grows well in shady and humid places. 
Mushroom production process comprises two major segments:  seed/spawn production, and cultivation and marketing. The BRAC-ILO study found that farmers in this country mostly grow seed and sell them directly to cultivators.  However, there are high chances of value addition in mushroom cultivation business as it can be a multi-dimensional enterprise. It can also generate numerous backward-link businesses i.e. production of dehydrated mushroom, mushroom powder, selling raw materials for mushroom cultivation.  Mushroom cultivators can either sell raw or processed mushroom (i.e. dry or powder mushroom) in local market. 
The study aimed at finding out profitable self employment opportunity for insolvent people. It came out that becoming self-employed in mushroom cultivation could be proved profitable for the low income groups. The requirement for start-up capital is very low as the raw materials are easily available at affordable price. The cultivation process is fairly straightforward and does not require additional labour compared to other sectors. Therefore, a mushroom cultivator with training and added investment of about BDT 10,000-20,000 can easily produce and process mushroom in raw, dried, preserved, powdery and packaged form, and sell them directly to local food industry or to local retailers. 
The study also found that commercial mushroom cultivation is a highly profitable occupation for women and persons with disabilities (PWDs) as well. PWDs who are partial amputees (i.e. lost one hand or one leg), or have partial eye sight or deaf or dumb can easily acquire the skills and materials required for mushroom cultivation. The opportunity of cultivating mushroom indoors with low capital, less physical labour, little monitoring and maintenance time makes it a perfectly suitable profession for these groups of people. 
 Despite its great potential, mushroom cultivation is still an untapped territory in Bangladesh. Acknowledging the usefulness of mushroom, Bangladesh government took the initiative of commercially cultivating mushroom back in 1976. It started the journey by bringing straw mushroom seeds from Thailand. The government started many training centrers for mushroom cultivation. Several hundred farmers also adopted mushroom cultivation as their livelihood. Yet, due to limited demand from domestic market, this sector is far from being profitable. The demand for mushroom is mostly concentrated only in a few urban areas. 
The government and non-government organisations need to work together for promotion and expansion of mushroom as a 'mainstream' food item. If more people become aware of the nutritional aspect of mushroom and the fact that it does not require many chemicals even when conventionally cultivated, the demand for mushroom is bound to rise, resulting in generation of self-employment for thousands of poor people including women and PWDs. 
The authors are with the Research at Development Economics Unit of BRAC Research and Evaluation Division. [email protected]

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