26 June 2012

Africa: International Conference On Mushroom Uses Begins

Windhoek — At least 100 delegates from all over the world are meeting in Windhoek for the University of Namibia-hosted 3rd African Conference on Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms that started on Sunday.

The conference, being held in Namibia for the first time, brings together scientists, farmers, donors and companies interested in the science of mushroom production from as far afield as Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, China, Serbia, Croatia, the United States of America and Japan.

The University of Namibia (Unam) is organizing the conference through its Department of Biological Sciences and the Zero Emissions Research Initiative (Zeri) project.

Unam's Dr Percy Chimwamurombe chairs the local organizing committee for the conference and is the executive secretary of the African Society for Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms (Asemm). He said approximately 40 of the delegates to this conference are from outside Namibia.

"We have targeted to receive at least 100 people. The scientific programme will run for three days but within that period there is a field excursion that we've planned," he said, adding that some activities would be held at the Ministry of Mines and Energy Auditorium, while others would happen at the Safari Hotel.

Namibia's Minister of Agriculture, Water and Forestry John Mutorwa is expected to deliver the keynote speech at the conference, whose theme is: 'Mushrooms, Food and Nutriceuticals for Africa'.

Observers say the theme is relevant given that all over the world food shortages and malnutrition are major problems and mushrooms can provide a cheap way of ensuring that people are not malnourished.

In Namibia, Unam through its Zeri unit has been working towards promoting production and consumption of mushrooms. In addition to training members of the community to produce mushrooms, Unam has begun work on domesticating wild and medicinal mushrooms.

The Zeri project is now establishing a unique technology park to train farmers and entrepreneurs in the production of capsules of medicinally important mushrooms. The facility, known as the Ganodema Technology Park, is the first such facility in Namibia focusing on medicinal mushrooms in Africa. It uses a mushroom called Ganodema lucidum for proof of concept and subsequently training farmers.

A new mushroom house has been built and plans are afoot to build the capsule-making laboratory soon. Expectations are that when fully operational, the Ganodema Technology Park will generate revenue through training and the selling of Ganodema powders to the local pharmaceutical industry.

As things stand local pharmaceutical companies import Ganodema powders from eastern countries that include the People's Republic of China and Malaysia.

Interest in Ganodema has grown over the past few years in southern Africa after it emerged that it has life-prolonging properties.

In Namibia, Ganodema naturally occurs in the hardwood forests of the northern parts of the country.

Chimwamurombe said many papers would be presented during the conference.

"Most of the papers will be in the context of the conference theme and will discuss protocols and methodologies of producing mushrooms through cheaper ways utilizing cheaper resources. Some papers will deal with evidence showing that mushrooms are of medicinal value."

Among the highlights of the conference will be the launch of the World Association of Mushrooms (Wam) by a company from Croatia.

"Our main objective is to allow networking and the sharing of experiences especially for mushroom practitioners of this region and all the other parts of the world. That sharing of experiences will result in continued collaboration because we will enable people to meet, exchange ideas and establish their own links for further interactions."

Organisers have lined up an impressive list of speakers during the conference. They include Unam scientist Dr Cousins Gwanama, who coordinates a Nepad-funded regional project, and Professor Kito Mshegeni, an expert in mushroom science from Tanzania.

The president of Asemm, Professor Omon Isikhuemhen, a top mushroom scientist based in the USA, jetted into Windhoek on Tuesday and is working with the local organizing committee to ensure that the conference runs smoothly.

In an interview, Isikhuemhen said of Asemm: "Its objective is to create a forum for African scientists, farmers, medical practitioners and traditional medical practitioners to come together and start talking to each other so that we can start to exploit the natural resources of mushrooms for food and medicine for humans and animals."

He said the association had grown from when the first conference was held in 2006 and that many ordinary people were showing keen interest in its conferences. This, he said, was good because Asemm seeks to educate people about the mushrooms that they have always been eating and how to grow them.

According to Isikhuemhen, in China and Japan where mushrooms are widely appreciated, it is rare to go into a restaurant and see a menu that does not include mushrooms, or to be given cancer treatment that does not include mushroom.

Asked what it would take to pupolarise mushrooms in developing and transition countries, Isikhuemhen said a lot needed to be done but a lot had also been done.

"The problem we have had all the time is the manner of introducing mushrooms to the people, which was not the best. It was not done at grassroots level and there was no sustainability. There is need to go to the people, ask them which mushrooms they have been eating and show them how to grow it. That way you don't have to preach to convince them."

It makes sense. After all, the mushroom that locals eat has acclimatized to the local conditions and the environment so African scientists need to look into the local environment and use the knowledge they acquired abroad to boost local production.

Isikhuemhen said the major obstacle to widespread production of mushrooms in Africa was a lack of spawn (seed).

"Producing it is a very technical process. That is why university professors who have the microbiology knowledge must be involved. Governments must come in to support universities and research institutes and allow then to work with business enterprises to boost production," he concluded.

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