Around one third of Tanzania is forested and it is estimated that approximately 1% of that forest is lost annually to deforestation, with large swathes of woodland cleared daily for farming, livestock grazing, timber and firewood.
In Tanzania’s Nou Forest, international development charity Farm Africa has been introducing economic incentives to encourage local communities to take a lead in forest conservation.
This involves training people in forestry-friendly income-generating activities such as oyster mushroom farming, raffia weaving, and beekeeping, and linking producers to markets so they can increase their incomes by selling more, and for higher amounts. Thanks to funding from the EU and others, Bernard Sambali (with his family above) is one of thousands of local farmers in the Nou Forest being supported by Farm Africa to move away from a reliance on selling timber products such as firewood and charcoal. Prior to being introduced to mushroom farming, Bernard was trying to earn a living growing vegetables on a patch of land that had been cleared of trees, but despite his hard work he was struggling to make ends meet.
He recalls, “I was living from hand-to-mouth. I was not able to save or afford to buy a new pair of shoes”.
Bernard received training in how to grow and sell mushrooms, and received spores and bags to kick-start his new business. The spores are mixed with red sorghum seeds, which provide a good food source, and portions of this mix are added to plastic bags containing agricultural waste for the spores to feed off further. The bags are then sealed and stored, and the mushrooms are able to start growing.
Forest ecosystems lend themselves well to mushroom production and agricultural experts work with farmers like Bernard to select the ideal place to locate their mushroom houses, which must be dark, warm and moist. Mushrooms are made up of around 90% water and unlike plants, do not require sunlight to make energy for themselves.
In addition, the moisture produced by the surrounding environment means they don’t require irrigation, which has the additional advantage that farmers don’t have to spend time watering. Other benefits to mushroom farming are that cultivation only requires a small space so can be done at home by those with little access to land, and mushrooms have a short production cycle of around a month so can generate a profit quickly.
They can also be produced throughout the year as they aren’t dependent on the season. An initial crop of oyster mushrooms takes between 21 to 30 days to grow from the time when the spores are sown in the bags until the first harvest can be collected.
After the mushroom sprout and are harvested, it takes between four to six days for new mushrooms to grow and then the farmer is able to return to the same bag to harvest again.
Bernard started by planting 35 bags of mushrooms, which yielded around a kilogram each day – enough to eat some at home and still have some to sell at market for around £2.40 per kg, earning him a good profit.
Bernard is saving up his extra income to start building a house for his family, so they will no longer need to spend their hard-earnt money on rent each month.
Finding ways to make forests pay for farmers like Bernard is a win-win situation. They can benefit by diversifying into profitable forest-based enterprises, whilst the environment is protected against the loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, and increased carbon emissions associated with the degradation and destruction of forests.