October 8, 2013

Peer Review: Bryan Sobel Ph.D. ’13 Facilitates Mushroom Farming in Rwanda

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Nearly two decades after the Rwandan genocide, “the scars are still visible in the landscape and the people,” Bryan Sobel Ph.D. ’13 said. The solution, or at least part of it – mushrooms. Sobel spent two weeks in the country helping rural women set up a cultivation project growing mushrooms to consume in their own households and to sell.

The mushrooms, in particular oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus, that Sobel was working with, are healthy.

With protein values comparable to meat and none of the saturated fat, a high concentration of vitamin D, iron and zinc and immune-stimulating properties, they are the perfect addition to the diet of women with children suffering from malnutrition, according to Sobel.

Additionally, mushrooms are a highly valued crop in the culinary culture of Rwanda, enabling women to earn a good profit by selling them.

Sobel’s graduate thesis focused on the concentration of phenolics and flavonoids – compounds associated with prevention of cancer and cardiovascular diseases – as a marker of quality in gourmet mushrooms.

According to Sobel, mushrooms are traditionally grown in large, climate-controlled facilities with lots of money. Sobel instead studied an alternative strategy of growing mushrooms in woodlands that could help owners of the 14 million acres of non-industrial forestland in the State of New York diversify their income and maintain small farm viability.

A similar approach was applied to mushroom cultivation in Rwanda. In addition to the lingering effects of genocide, Rwanda also faces rampant deforestation leading to loss of soil fertility, according to Sobel. Mushroom cultivation can help reverse this process by adding organic matter to the soil that can be used to cultivate fruit trees.

With support from the United States Agency for International Development’s Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program’s Trellis Fund, Sobel partnered with a local non-governmental organization called Sustaining Rwanda Youth Organization on a nine-month project. He worked mainly via email and other communication methods punctuated by a two-week visit.

“I spent most of the time sort of trying to understand how people grow mushrooms in Rwanda – going to farms and talking to farmers and traveling around the country just to see how people were doing things,” Sobel said. “We grow mushrooms here, but the way we do it might not be appropriate for the conditions and resources that people in Rwanda have available. It was really important to have [the Rwandan farmers] teach me.”

With his newly-acquired local knowledge, Sobel spent some time in a village near Bhutari, teaching women about mushrooms and how best to cultivate them.

“I’m not a big fan of just standing up and lecturing … but there is a certain amount of information that you just need to tell them,” Sobel said. “What is a mushroom? It’s not a plant, it’s not an animal, it is its own sort of thing. The conditions that are important, some of the major pests of the mushroom and what they can do to prevent them.”

Alongside formal instruction, Sobel also worked directly with the women to prepare plots, build shade houses, and plant the mushrooms.

The women he was working with had been “informally employed in the agriculture sector,” Sobel said. They had been initially recruited to a health clinic because they had children suffering from malnutrition. After 10 weeks of training, they were invited to join a formally recognized cooperative where they could learn to cultivate mushrooms to supplement their diet as well as generate income to deposit in a savings account given by the government.

“A lot of times, it’s hard, because they want to eat rather than sell the mushrooms, and then they don’t have enough money to buy more input. So every once in awhile, I will get an email asking for money. But it’s important for them to figure out their business model and not be dependent on handouts,” Sobel said. “There were challenges in the beginning, but I think it turned around and became very successful.”

Not the least of the challenges was the language barrier. Volunteer translators from SRYO were helpful, and Sobel emphasized how this project would have been impossible without the NGO’s initiative and assistance.

“The most powerful part was when, at the culmination of the training, we all sat down and had a lunch of mushrooms,” Sobel said. “Sharing food has these transcultural properties that can combat language barriers and was also a great way for the women to see what the result of their work could be.”