Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Road Less Traveled: 
F&FP in Africa (Part 2)
by Laura

Oysters fruiting from small thin plastic bags filled with chopped cornstalk substrate
in Malawi, Africa. These particular bags contain high bacterial contamination.

The Tisange Association in Malawi, Africa have only been growing oyster mushrooms since March of 2015. They received their initial training from another group in Malawi called Chalera. Last year, a CNFA volunteer, Matthew Cleaver, trained them in the basic principles of oyster mushroom production, mostly covering different substrate treatment methods. Matthew and I are both volunteering this year, and met upon arrival at the airport in Lilongwe (Malawi’s capital).

The Chalera group dancing and singing with excitement.

One of the first things we did after settling in was visit the farm of the Chalera group. It was simply amazing! They were so happy to see Matt, they broke out into song and dance. I was told that they were singing about mushroom production. It was such a welcoming experience. Malawi is referred to as the warm heart of Africa, and I can see why! We only stayed a short while because our assignments were located elsewhere. Matt was to stay in the city working directly with the Natural Resource College (where some of the spawn is made), while I would travel 5 hours north to Mzuzu to meet the members of the Tisange Association.

The typical landscape in Mzuzu. Walls are placed around some residences and public places
for security reasons. Most of the landscape is being farmed in one way or another.

Meeting the group was peaceful. They too were welcoming (although not breaking out into song), but they were quiet toward me. I suppose they were just as curious about my knowledge in the field as I was about what concepts they had a strong grasp upon. I was traveling with a translator named Limbi. He is a local that speaks excellent English, as well as Chitumbuka (the local language).

Our first training day consisted of a lecture in the host’s home (which would also serve as our classroom each day), and then I asked them to walk me through their current process. We tried to split days up, half inside lecturing, and half outdoors doing hands on work. The group had become very discouraged by high contamination rates, and low mushroom production. I had to do my best to determine why they were experiencing such high contamination.

Corn stalks are chopped in preparation for pasteurization.
From left to right members: Love, Clement, Agery, and Khumbo.

The Tisange Group is using dried corn stalks and leaves as a primary substrate for growing oyster mushrooms. They have used dried banana leaves in the past too, but this time of year the corn material is highly available, and free to the farmers. Mushroom growing is done as a group, but each individual specializes in other various crops, including corn (maize), which almost everyone grows. Before growing mushrooms, these stalks were simply composted. The substrate is chopped and washed using soap and water. The water at this particular farm is treated by the city, and is drinkable (this is not the case in all areas in Malawi). The water does come with a high cost, and aside from the spawn is the most expensive part of each batch that is produced.

Ester just finished pre-washing the substrate. It is quite dirty.
The stalks are currently piled in the open, and are exposed to blowing dirt and debris. 
Fifteen liters of water are heated to boiling, 250g of hydrated lime is added, and dumped over the substrate which is contained within a large plastic bucket with lid. I took note immediately that the substrate was simply floating on top of the water, not being held down in anyway. Even if held down, fifteen liters is not enough water to cover the substrate. Using a compost thermometer that I brought along I measured the water temperature (something the group had never done prior). Immediately it dropped to 180 degrees (F), but within 15 minutes it had dropped to nearly 140 degrees (F) where it stayed at until the 30 minute soak was finished. Typically we recommend a longer soak between 45 minutes to an hour with a temperature that remains between 160-170 degrees (F).

Boiling water is poured over the substrate, but quickly the temperature
goes down below what is recommended for pasteurization. 
After the pasteurization process, the substrate is dumped out in order to drain and cool.
This process was being done outside with direct exposure to the elements. Depending
on how much the sun shines, this process can take nearly two hours. The group squeezes
the substrate to test for adequate moisture. If only a drop or two comes out, it is ready to inoculate. The substrate is then put into plastic tubs and brought in the house for inoculating. 
Once treated, the substrate is allowed to drain and cool in the open air. 
This farm has the basic concepts down for growing oysters on substrate, but minor adjustments must be made in order to best avoid contamination. Stay tuned for some
simple solutions I was able to offer them.