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The business of mushrooms



MASERU-Studying for a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture Business in a country which was still undergoing economic crisis, it was hard to make ends meet for Tshepo Heqoa. Far away from home and without enough finances to sustain him through the month, he had to make a plan. In 2014 winter, a friend born and raised in Zimbabwe whose family owned a farm and had experience with mushroom farming suggested that they produce oyster mushrooms to sustain themselves. “He said they were easy to produce, generated a lot of money and did not need big land for production nor intense financial capital. We both contributed US$50 to start and never looked back,” Heqoa said. Within a short period of time, the two young men were no longer worrying about buying their necessities, the mushroom business was doing well. Heqoa fell in love with mushroom production that when he came home for the September holidays, he started the mushroom project at his home in Koalabata. “My family looked after the project when I went back to school and it was a success. They were able to harvest and sell from that five by three lehlaka (reed) structure I had erected,” Heqoa said. In 2015 when Heqoa was preparing for his graduation due the following year there was uncertainty in relation to one of his modules. It was not clear whether he had enough credits or had to take more to be able to have credits necessary for graduation. “While the issue was being resolved, I heard about a mushroom training programme in Pietermaritzburg, I took the tuition and graduation money and went for the training. I learned so much that I did not regret not graduating in 2016,” Heqoa said. After the training, Heqoa came back with a new set of skills and more determined than before. He made a bigger structure that was seven by seven metres and used the hydroponic way of producing (advanced way of production without using soil just water and minerals). The training also assisted him to spot earlier why his mushrooms were getting spoiled. In 2019 Heqoa finally graduated whereas in 2018 he started working for The Silo magazine. This income helped him save to build a bigger structure that would allow him to produce more without a lot of maintenance. While working there, the Ministry of Agriculture after visiting his home several times, offered him a chance to go to China for a training programme in mushroom production. “I am grateful for that opportunity, I was there for two months and learned so much about different types of mushrooms,” Heqoa said. Coming back home Heqoa started working on building his structure and did not produce mushrooms for the rest of 2018 until late 2019. Last year he then met the Juncao technology Chinese project supervisors who mentored him further in this business. “They were overwhelmed by the quantity of spawns I was producing as locally no one had managed to produce them. People mostly focused on mushroom production as spawn production is more challenging,” Heqoa said. By this time his business was already flourishing, he was supplying the Maluti Seventh Day Adventist Hospital and selling to health-conscious individuals. Heqoa was selling 600g of mushroom for M35 and 1.3 kg of spawns for M10.00. Production was going well but he had a challenge in terms of storage. He had limited suitable space to store spawns after production. “My facilities can produce 4000 spawns per week but my greatest challenge till now is storage,” Heqoa said. Using his social media platforms to raise awareness and educate the public about oyster mushroom benefits saw more people buying both spawns and mushroom from Heqoa. Earlier this year Heqoa nearly quit and used the mushroom structure to rear chickens. He was hit terribly by a contamination that he could not figure where it came from. “I really hit rock bottom, nothing was working out. I could not figure where I went wrong, nothing that I tried seemed to work instead more and more mushrooms were getting spoiled. In the end I figured it all out and everything has been going well since then,” Heqoa said. To solve his storage challenge, Likomo Sekaleli his friend, suggested that he enter The Hook-Up Dinner M100 000 competition. His brother Mphohlela assisted him to create the video to enter the competition, family and friends shared it on their social platforms until he made it to the top five. However, Heqoa nearly dropped out of the competition. “I did not understand the equity issue they were raising but my fellow competitors encouraged me to seek clarity and not drop out,” Heqoa said. Last Friday Heqoa was crowned the winner of the M100 000.00 competition hosted by The Hook-up Dinner. The Hook- up Dinner is a networking community of entrepreneurs with ideas to change the world by engaging and contributing to each other’s success. “I didn’t believe it when I heard my name announced as the winner. Competition was really tight. I am really grateful that I will now be able to solve my storage challenge,” Heqoa said. The plan is to build a big firm where he can store his spawns and mushroom after production while waiting for buyers to collect. The future looks bright and exciting for Heqoa. He plans to introduce other varieties of mushroom like button, king oyster, shiitake and Lion’s mane. “I want to focus more on spawn production and sell it to farmers who will then produce mushroom and after production we can package and penetrate the retail market,” Heqoa said. Mushroom production he said is a luxurious industry that can create the highly needed jobs and decrease the alarming unemployment rates amongst the youths. He warned that even though mushroom production is easy it needs a lot of dedication and focus. “I’m forever grateful for the support I got from my family, they really assisted in every way they could. We walked this journey together and for that I am thankful,” Heqoa said. Lemohang Rakotsoane

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