She smiles broadly and calmly in her seat as she explains the project that is very dear to her, “mushroom and spirulina research project”. Professor Asenath Sigot is the former Acting Vice chancellor of Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, Kakamega, Kenya. This is one of the leading public universities in the country and she was one of the few women at the helm of the university leadership. Prof. Sigot is a re-known researcher of nutritional science, and education; and has done extensive work with communities in regard to nutrition and public health. Just like Dr Lusike Wasilwa, the assistant director in-charge of horticulture and industrial crops research at KARI, and AWARD fellow/ mentor who studied mango production- a critical source of income and nutrition in rural areas in Kenya, Prof. Sigot has treaded the same route to help the rural communities to achieve self-reliance through innovative mushroom and spirulina project. Dr Lusike is an enthusiastic scientist whose work has indeed influenced the rural community in Kenya through mango research project. She also applied participatory research approaches to attain her goals. Her work is related with Prof. Sigot’s mushroom and spirulina as they both aim at addressing issues of food security to the rural community and targets mostly women. “We started with Mushroom project at the university, where the research involved working with the community women to improve on family nutrition and as a means of income generation,” Explained the professor. Food insecurity is a common phenomenon in western Kenya and particularly the Lake Victoria Basin. This is so due to over reliance on subsistence farming and low returns from commercial cultivation of sugarcane among other factors.

In a research report written to document and validate the efficacy of mushroom production techniques and utilization to enhance food security in Kenya, a team of researchers led by Prof Sigot as the lead scientist studied the constraints facing mushroom growers, its utilization and established a pilot project at University farm. Other members of the research team are Prof. Silvery Oteng’i, a professor of applied Meteorology, Mr. Paul Kisiangani and Ms. Linnette Mudavadi. This research funded by Masinde Muliro University is an on-going project that employs participatory techniques, where members of the community are recruited, trained and supported to start their own mushroom and spirulina farms that yields to the required data for analysis. This is to ensure maximum technology transfer during the project period.

Food security is a global problem which is more disastrous in the developing countries. FAO data indicates that some 10million people die annually from hunger, the most vulnerable being women and children. Globally, 14% of the population is undernourished, in Africa 27.4% and around 33% in sub-saharan Africa. The WFP estimates that 35million people in Africa are facing serious food shortages. Mushrooms as new emerging crops have an enormous potential to contribute to food security. They can be made into different products such as canned mushrooms, pickles, wine mushroom, omelet, cakes, appetizers, pizza and others. Besides their diverse and interesting culinary uses mushrooms have nutritional and medicinal value. Some contain cancer fighting properties and some aid the body’s immune system. Furthermore mushrooms and spirulina are good sources of protein, vitamins and minerals, Vitamin B1, B2, D2, Niacin, Phosphorous, Iron, Calcium and other Minerals. Some lower serum cholesterol, have strong antitumor and antiviral properties, very low fat, no starch and more vitamin B12 than milk and Fish. Mushrooms have been used as food and food-flavouring material in soups and sauces for centuries, due to their unique and subtle flavour. Recently, they have become attractive as functional foods and as a source of physiologically beneficial medicines, while being devoid of undesirable side-effects. In particular, mushrooms useful against cancers of the stomach, esophagus, lungs, etc., are known in China, Japan, Korea, Russia, the United States and Canada. Both cellular components and secondary metabolites of a large number of mushrooms have been shown to affect the immune system of the host and therefore could be used to treat a variety of diseases. Prof Sigot explains that the antioxidative and free radical scavenging properties of the phenolic content of mushroom methanolic extracts have been reported, suggesting possible protective roles of these compounds, due to their ability to capture metals, inhibit lipoxygenase and scavenge free radicals. Recently, studies identified the presence of six phenolic compounds (3-, 4- and 5-O-caffeoylquinic acid, caffeic acid, p-coumaric acid and rutin) and five organic acids (citric, ascorbic, malic, shikimic and fumaric acids) in wild edible mushroom Cantharellus cibarius, kept under four different conditions (dried, frozen, preserved in olive oil and in vinegar). The organic acids citric, ketoglutaric, malic, succinic, oxalic, ascorbic, quinic, shikimic and fumaric were also found in the edible mushrooms Amanita caesarea. Boletus edulis, Gyroporus castaneus, Lactarius deliciosus, Suillus collinitus and Xerocomus chrysenteron. Of course these sound very scientific, but when you speak to prof. Sigot, it sounds different. She doesn’t even explain a lot for you to understand the weight of this project. Her testimony is very moving. She says she learnt of mushrooms and spirulina benefits way too late. She had an Hypo-thyroid swelling and had undergone two major surgeries. She was afraid that since the swelling had not completely gone and was increasing, a third surgery would be very dangerous for her aged body. It is then that she started using mushrooms at whatever opportunity available. Believe it or not, the swelling is no more and now she is completely cured.

Spirulina –Arthrospira platensis is tiny blue - green algae in the shape of a perfect spiral coil. Biologically, it is one of the oldest inhabitants of the planet. It provided a evolutionally bridge between bacteria and green plants. This water plant has renewed itself for billions of years and has nourished many cultures throughout history in Africa, in the Middle East and in the Americas. Spirulina grows naturally in the mineral-rich alkaline lakes which can be found on every continent often near volcanoes. Research from scientists around the world has found it to be most powerful and well-balanced source of nutrition available on the planet. At Masinde Muliro University, it is grown at a green house, where hygiene is highly observed, to provide highest yield under controlled temperatures. The community members working there always keep time to agitate the water in the seven pools where the plant is grown. Harvest is done after every three days, dried under solar driers, ground into powder and packed either as powder or in capsules ready for the market.

The mushrooms are grown in a mud-walled grass-thatched house where the substrate of sugarcane bagasse is prepared, sterilized and hanged in plastic bags. The substrate is spawned under sterile conditions and moisturized every morning to ensure humid conditions to grow the spores. Within three months, total yield may be approximately 200kg each sold at approx. KSh. 200 (2.4USD) per kilo. Prof. Sigot is trying very hard to stand in the gap that exists between researchers and the people of Kenya. The mushroom industry in Kenya is still in its infancy. To many people in this country, its cultivation is still a myth because there is lack of communication between the researchers in this field and the farmers. To bridge that gap, the project at Masinde Muliro University ensures that local farmers have been given enough support both for technology and marketing of their products as a way of encouraging them and capacity building. We were particularly impressed to find the project at Masinde Muliro university farm employs local farmers who speak passionately of the project and how much they have gained from the project in terms of knowledge.

Recently, mushroom production was introduced in western Kenya through Community Based Organizations particularly Vihiga Mushroom Project (VIMPRO). The project has 16,800 registered small holder farmers in 115 mushroom cultivation groups. However the actual number producing are 12 groups with membership of at least 100 farmers per group. These farmers are growing Oyster Species that grows on almost any broad-leaved trees, wood, straws, Maize cobs, banana leaves and distillers grain waste. The farmers have already established mushroom growing units that is supported by research Fund by Masinde Muliro University Project under Prof. Sigot. The farmers have expressed a lot of joy and satisfaction due to the economic benefits they get from the project. They sell the raw mushroom at Kenya Shillings 300 per kg ( approx. 4USD) while dried mushroom fetches KSh. 2,500 ( approx. 30USD).

The main beneficiaries of the research project are farmers from Endangalasia village of Kakamega County, Kenya. The farmers there got a lot of interest in the project, they set up a demonstration farm for mushrooms and spirulina, and invited members of the community Living with HIV and AIDS to start using the mushrooms and Spirulina. Today the community members especially women are full of praise for they have seen miraculous results. The death rate of its members has really reduced and they are now stronger than before.

The major challenges for the project are that of marketing. Though there is enough local market for the production right now, the prices are not as enhanced because the farmers cannot sell in outlets that would guarantee them good prices. This is because the Kenya Bureau of Standardization Mark has to be affixed in any product that is sold there. Prof. Sigot is now working hard with his team to help the farmers acquire these standards and be able to sell in the major Supermarkets in Kenya. Another challenge the project faces is that of getting the spores that are used as seeds for mushrooms. The university is also working out a programme on how farmers can acquire spores regularly and conveniently for their farms. Also many people are used to the flavor of wild mushrooms, which is sweeter. To combat this challenge, Prof. Sigot and her team has got support from donors from Hong Kong and the study is now underway using tissue culture technology to come up with a sweeter variety of mushrooms. Many local people do not really know how mushrooms should be cooked, and thus the challenges with the taste of the mushrooms. To make a delicious meal of mushroom, professor adds, that one should not use water. One could simmer for few minutes and then use milk instead of water and serve with bamboo shoots to get a mouth-watering delicacy.

From this project, one will really realize that this project can be summed up as an initiative of African women to feed Africa through innovations in Agricultural Science and technology. Prof. Sigot is such an Icon in this area and would wish that all other peers would emulate her spirit of influencing the community to be self-reliant.