How India could become a 'mushroom superpower'

By Priti Gupta & Ben Morris
Mumbai

  • Published
Anirban Nandy and Fulrida EkkaImage source, Anirban Nandy
Image caption,
Growing mushrooms has eased financial hardship for Fulrida Ekka

Three years ago Fulrida Ekka, who lives near Siliguri in West Bengal, knew she had to find a new source of income.

Her husband had died and her seasonal work picking tea leaves was just not enough income to support her family.

Searching around for money making ideas, she came across mushroom farming. With help from Indian rural development organisation, Live Life Happily, she got started.

Now she sells two or three bags of her mushroom crop every day, which makes her around $92 (£73) a month.

The white flower mushrooms are grown in large bags which hang from the ceiling. Usually Mrs Ekka will have 10 in her house, which produce around 48 bags of mushrooms a month.

"It's a sight of happiness when I see it growing because I know now, me and my family will not sleep on an empty stomach," she says.

Image source, Live Life Happily
Image caption,
The mushrooms grow in large bags which hang from the ceiling

Mushroom growing has made a big difference to Mrs Ekka's life, but some think the crop should make a bigger contribution to India's farming sector.

"India has all the required elements for becoming a super power in mushroom production," says Rouf Hamza Boda, who has spent 20 years identifying 100 types of mushrooms across Jammu and Kashmir.

"India has huge wild mushroom diversity. Lots of composting material, cheap labour and [it is] supported by diverse climatic conditions," he explains.

Lack of appetite?

Despite those favourable conditions, India accounts for just 2% of the world's mushroom production, with China providing the lion's share at 75%.

According to Mr Boda, part of the problem is national appetite - that many people in India don't like eating mushrooms, finding them "strange and deadly".

"Not much research has been done on identification of wild mushrooms with respect to their edibility," he says.

"Lack of awareness as to how beneficial mushrooms are, and the cheapness of mushroom cultivation, are hurdles in popularising consumption," he says.

So, there's a lot of space for entrepreneurs willing to take a chance.

Image source, Leena's Mushroom Farm
Image caption,
Mushroom growing started out as an 'experiment' for Leena Thomas and her son Jithu

Four years ago, Leena Thomas and her son Jithu experimented with growing mushrooms in Jithu's bedroom.

Jithu said he really just started the project out of "curiosity", having seen mushrooms grown simply in a plastic bottle on the internet.

Initial success spurred him to study mushroom cultivation and take courses and so his hobby quickly turned into a thriving business.

Now the Kerala-based mother and son entrepreneurs have 2,000 mushroom beds producing 100kg of produce a day, under the company name Leena's Mushroom.

"There are many advantages to mushroom farming including its short growing period," he explains.

"But that doesn't mean it is an easy task. The crop is fragile and extremely sensitive. A minute change in temperature or the advent of pests can ruin the crop completely."

The firm's greenhouses use fans to draw outside air over moist pads, to keep the temperature and humidity at an optimum level. The carbon dioxide level is also monitored.

Image source, Leena's Mushroom Farm
Image caption,
Temperature, humidity and CO2 levels have to be closely monitored in the mushroom greenhouse

But it's worth the effort. He says good prices make mushrooms "lucrative".

"Freshly harvested mushrooms are sold to retailers on the same day, with no middlemen," Jithu says.

Parimal Ramesh Udgave has taken a different tack. He studied microbiology to develop a deep knowledge of fungiculture.

As well as growing mushrooms, his business Biobritte, set up in 2019, dries the crop to make mushroom powders and health supplements.

In spite of his success, he says mushroom growing is not easy.

"People see mushrooms as a fast, money-making business but it also has to be combined with technical skills," he says.

According to Mr Udgave, many start-up mushroom businesses fail.

Image source, Biobritte
Image caption,
Biobritte grows mushrooms to make into powder for health supplements

Whereas Anirban Nandy, a rural development researcher from IIT-Kharagpur, and his wife Poulami Chaki Nandy, think there is plenty of room for small players in the mushroom market.

Their non-governmental organisation, Live Life Happily, has shown more than 8,000 women in West Bengal, including Fulrida Ekka, how to grow their own mushrooms for profit.

"These women are poor, with no land or proper means of livelihood," says Mr Nandy.

Many women in rural areas are left in financial distress after becoming widows and find themselves unable to earn enough money from picking tea.

"Learning to grow mushrooms is a feasible and manageable task. The women can even grow in a corner of their house, as a part-time activity, or hobby, without needing farmland," he says.

And, according to the Nandys, there is plenty of customer demand. "Especially in cosmopolitan areas like Darjeeling, thus ensuring quick income," explains Mr Nandy.

That extra mushrooming income can be truly life changing.

"These women have gained bargaining power in their house and become decision-makers. In one instance, a woman refused to marry her daughter at an early age because she was able to manage funding her education with mushroom farming," says Mrs Nandy.

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