- In rural Malawi, tobacco has been the main source of both cash and poverty for decades. As tobacco more and more fails to pay the bills, mushrooms successfully have been introduced as a new source of income, also for the poor.
In Ndawambe, some 140 kilometres from Malawi's capital Lilongwe, mushrooms have already made a difference for many village households. Here, poor villagers have been enabled to invest in a new production to improve their livelihoods.
With tobacco fast losing its position as the largest foreign exchange earner due to the worldwide anti-smoking campaign, the Malawian government is looking at mushrooms, for which there is heavy global demand, as an alternative. The local market is already brisk.
- We are unable to meet demand for mushrooms from supermarkets in Lilongwe, Monica Hara, vice chairperson of the group growing mushrooms, told the UN development agency, UNDP. Her group is the most popular of such initiatives in Ndawambe and their success is making the village a model in overcoming rural poverty.
UNDP has interviewed several of the stakeholders in Malawi. "The demand for training in mushroom farming is growing, and we are getting groups of smallholder farmers," said Henry Mbedza, head of agricultural engineering at Bunda College of Agriculture, part of the University of Malawi.
Professor Moses Kwapata, coordinator of the project, told the UN agency: "There has been a growing awareness that mushrooms, apart from being a delicacy, have high protein value and medicinal properties."
UNDP and the Japan International Cooperation Agency funded the programme, launched in collaboration with the University of Namibia as part of an environmentally friendly "zero emission research initiative." Mushroom growing helps conserve the environment since growers use waste matter from other crops, such as maize stalks.
Ndawambe residents are gaining from training in this and other commercial activities, thanks to the Malawian government's Sustainable Livelihoods Programme, UNDP reports.
The UN Capital Development Fund and UNDP support the government established District Development Fund in financing the training, provided by the National Small and Medium Enterprises programme.
Other partners in the initiative are the Malawi Industrial Research and Technology Development Centre, and the Malawi Entrepreneurship Development Institute.
Also the US development agency, USAID, opinions that its small-scale mushroom growing projects have been among the most successful they have sponsored in Malawi. USAID on several occasions has given micro-credits to villagers to use compost to grow mushrooms, which rapidly gained back the investment.
In rural Malawi, quality tobacco is grown on huge plantations that traditionally have produced substantial revenues for their owners. Plantation workers, however, for generations have remained in utter poverty. Their inadequate wages have only become more inadequate as tobacco grows cheaper on world markets.
Local communities, the Malawian government and foreign donors therefore are constantly looking for alternative livelihoods for the country's rural population. In addition to mushrooms, the villagers of Ndawambe have found other cash producing alternatives.
Nicholas Chiwaya Banda and his wife Expressia told UNDP they had given up money-losing work growing tobacco and were now doing well raising chickens, with 900 hens producing 23 trays of eggs a day. They are building a two-storey, 12-room home, a first for the village.
Other neighbours in Ndawambe said they had increased their earnings by starting businesses such as fruit juice production, vegetable oil pressing, honey production, bakeries and fish farming, UNDP reports.
Ndawambe is becoming a model. Mchinji, one of the 12 pilot districts in the national decentralisation programme, plans to replicate Ndawambe's achievements in three more villages, according to Mchinji district chairperson Moses Kuchingale. The District Development Fund is providing support.
Leoson Hara, Ndawambe village headman, said he is looking forward to day when the Malawian government helps the groups operate as fully-fledged cooperative societies and links them up with lending institutions for loans to buy better equipment.
- We have the capacity to produce almost everything from honey to tomatoes and onions, but we still need technical and financial assistance to become organised and effective, he told UNDP.
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