Farm to fork social impact: how mushrooms are helping a new generation of small rural entrepreneurs
One of the most unique and savory foods that we consume on a regular basis are mushrooms. This delicate fungus increases the contemporary gastronomy adding interesting flavour to omelettes, sauces, risottos and other meals in a simple and quickly way. Appart from being a powerhouse of nutrition, mushrooms also have the potential to easily improve livelihoods in India’s North East region: the agro-climatic condition in that part of the country is excellent for several species of mushroom to be grown at the same time and can meet the growing demand of 25 per cent per year in the Indian market. But how is it possible without appropriate technical knowledge, high level of poverty and lack of skills among small farmers?
Back to 1994, Pranjal Baruah started his own mushroom cultivation to earn his livings. During years he got exposed to issues faced by small farmers and entrepreneurs – however, meeting a business growth of above 80 per cent YoY. Perceiving the problem of sustainable growth in terms of economic conditions in the rural areas, he decided to create an organization which could resolve these problems collectively: in 2004 the Mushroom Development Foundation came, then, to light.
“Agricultural for small and marginal farmers provide inconsistent financial returns as the market and quality production inputs are often beyond their reach. We are producing mushrooms for nutrition and for generating additional/alternate income with a view to further integrate their livelihood opportunities into a holistic, eco-friendly market based solution“, says Pranjal, who was also elected for the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.
MDF is putting farmers in control of their produce through land-to-lab strategies, plus training and
support for mushroom entrepreneurs in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya and Nagalan. Their strategy includes awareness and training on a mushroom based livelihood activity; Integrated Cluster Development and the Eco-Friendly Integrated Livelihood Mission (E-FILM), which is the flagship initiative that is caring MDF forward in achieving its goals.
Pranjal set up a laboratory called Protein Food to conduct research & development of low-cost, effective methods for growing mushrooms and to seek out new varieties that can be grown locally. The lab produces approximately one thousand packets of spawns each day and is capable of manufacturing almost 400,000 spawn packets in one season, an amount sufficient for almost all mushroom farmers at present. They are also looking into how to grow oyster mushrooms year-round, which would ensure reliable income generation. In addition to running their own farms, these entrepreneurs will motivate, train, support, and coordinate other growers in their geographic areas.
“However, the barrier is always manpower and mind set towards a social enterprise and confusion with business versus social work. The awareness about mushroom as a food or business was a very big challenge in the past and now the challenge is vested interest in policy making space. This is leading towards a government policy change which will lead to development and change of corrupt practices prevailing today”, says Pranjal.
In spite of this situation, MDF’s path has been sprouting good results. They have already trained over 20 thousand farmers around 37 districts and 800 villages; also groomed 200 Master-Trainers and 600 entrepreneurs and over 3000 farmers’ income increased from Rs 2000 to Rs 5000 PA. Recently, Pranjal started to network all mushroom growers into an umbrella body. Already 1,200 growers have registered with the federation after paying a small membership fee.
According to him, mushroom is the future food, with the biggest growth in market size and demand shooting up. “In the next five years we expect to reach out to 16 thousand families in Ribhoi district, with 1200 mushroom entrepreneurs from this district to be linked up with the other developed clusters. The greatest target is to reach out into 1000 villages by 2018 through E-FILM”.