Mwai injects grains with culture.
Kenya’s National Museum, renowned for hosting paleontological findings and Kenya’s past, present, cultural and national artefacts, and a wide array of contemporary art, is also the reference point for plants in the region including fungi. The latter are housed in the Botany Department (formerly the historical East African Herbarium, built in 1902) where Susan Mwai, a scientist, is carrying out research on wild mushrooms in order to understand their range in terms of species, the cultivability of some types and spore production.
Mwai, who recognises the important role agriculture plays in Kenya’s economy as well as in those of other African countries, explains, “Agriculture drives the economy in Kenya and there are many untapped opportunities, including the cultivation of some varieties of wild mushrooms to mitigate food security. The industry has great potential and mushrooms are being introduced to rural farmers for cultivation with the aim of improving their living standards and nutrition.”
Her duties in the department include engaging farmers and creating awareness about the economic potential of mushrooms, their cultivation and consumption. She also sells spores to farmers at affordable prices. “Mushroom cultivation has not gained momentum in Kenya where it is viewed as an expensive vegetable. Therefore, accessing quality mushroom spores locally is a challenge for most farmers who have no choice but to import seeds which are not only expensive but are also susceptible to pests and diseases due to their lack of regional adaptability.”
She adds that aside from their nutritional value, mushrooms have other health benefits. “Research shows that mushrooms strengthen the immune system and some species even have anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. The oyster mushroom for instance, is a good source of iron and has been credited with slowing down the growth of some tumours.”
Mwai who holds a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in mycology, explains that her love for science is inborn and that from a young age, she was drawn to science subjects.
“I especially enjoyed biology and I performed well in my exams, so when the time came to choose a university course after high school, I chose applied biology”, she recalls.
Being part of a large family presented financial challenges and Mwai reveals that she did join university until she started working at the Museum - she was then able to fund her undergraduate and graduate studies.
Mwai discloses that working in an exciting environment, still has its fair share of challenges. “There is a need for training on the taxonomy (classification) of fungal species. Lack of the resources required to carry out research is also a setback.”
According to Mwai, Kenya has, albeit gradually, accepted and embraced agribusiness and the sector is currently experiencing a growth spurt.
This scientist’s calm demeanour belies the enthusiasm in her voice as she shares her dream that one day, mushrooms will form a greater part of the diet for the majority of Kenyans.
“I look forward to a thriving and widespread mushroom industry in Kenya, just like in China. An industry that will create jobs and also solve the challenges of soil fertility because it is a fact that naturally occurring fungi help break down organic material,” a hopeful Mwai concludes.
Download: Susan Mwai, 2015 AWARD Fellow, Kenya