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From Waste To Hope

From Waste to Hope
Chido Govera is only just getting started
Sukayna Powell

From her early childhood as an orphan in harsh and abusive circumstances, to her narrow escape from child-marriage, to her training in biology and mycology, and her commitment to other orphans, Chido Govera has seen and done more at the age of thirty four than most people accomplish in a lifetime. Despite intense lockdowns in Zimbabwe and the endless difficulties inherent in navigating international aid – much of which is set up with flashily visible short-term goals in mind, and doesn’t promote sustainable longer term projects – her foundation The Future of Hope has kept working, going out into villages and communities around Harare, and sharing the gift of mushrooms. As The Future of Hope expands its operations – aiming to build a laboratory to develop and experiment with new cultivars and substrates – The Mushroom caught up with Chido to chat about her relationship with mushrooms, their potential for transformative change, and what she’s focusing on for the future.

“PEOPLE HAVE ALWAYS APPROACHED MUSHROOMS AS A NORMAL PART OF THE ZIMBABWEAN DIET, BUT TODAY FORAGING REPRESENTS A CHALLENGE”

Sukayna: How are mushrooms thought of in Zimbabwe and the communities you take them to? Do people already have a cultural or culinary relationship with mushrooms or is it something your work reminds them of?

Chido: Mushrooms in Zimbabwe have been an important part of the diet from the beginning. The mushroom season was a very important season, it was the best time where we would have really good meals – with mushrooms instead of just other foraged vegetables, which sometimes – most times – were not so easy to come by.

I remember when I was in the village with my grandmother, who was one hundred years old and blind, she used to take me into the forest, where she would sit under a tree, and I would run around collecting different types of mushrooms. And I would pile them in front of her, and she would sit there and pick them one by one, and just by smelling them she would tell me ‘these mushrooms are poisonous’; ‘these ones are inedible but not poisonous’; and the edible ones she would tell them apart, even to the extent of saying ‘these edible ones yes, they may have a level of poison, but if we boil them and dry them they don’t have poison any more, and we can eat them’.

When I was learning about the science of mushrooms for the very first time, I remembered all the stories that my grandmother told when we were foraging, about how we should harvest and cook mushrooms in such a way that the gods will give us more next year. My grandmother would talk about ways of harvesting in the wild, where you would cut, and leave a piece in the ground, or when you find a spot with a bunch of mushrooms growing, you should always harvest and leave one or two, so that the gods will give you mushrooms next time. Later when I was studying, I realised how the foundation was already laid by my grandmother, based on our tradition of foraging. And these are still stories I tell when I teach, because they are some of my best memories from childhood, and what really started my journey with mushrooms.

My grandmother’s immense knowledge could only come from years and years of experience foraging and cooking mushrooms. So people have always approached mushrooms as a normal part of a Zimbabwean diet, but today foraging for mushrooms represents a challenge for most people, as in the name of ‘civilisation’ we have sort of moved away from some of the traditions of our grandmothers. We don’t spend as much time with them, and as such the knowledge that they possessed is not so common in our generations. There have been a lot of accidents with foraged mushrooms, so we are providing an alternative through cultivating mushrooms, so that young and old can enjoy them without fear of poisoning.

S: How do you choose the mushrooms you teach people to grow? Are they wild/ native species, and do they vary by region and environment?

C: The mushrooms that we produce are widely cultivated. We find the ones that are easiest to produce, as we are working in vulnerable communities. We are also working with locally available resources, so in terms of constructing growing structures we are adapting to what is common in the different environments where we work. So far our focus has been on the oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) because it’s one of the easiest to grow. You can grow it on a wide variety of cellulose based materials which are found in almost every village in which we work, because Zimbabwe is an agrarian economy, and so every household in the village, and also some in urban areas, grows corn that produces waste which is suitable for growing oyster mushrooms.

In Zimbabwe, people refer to the oyster mushroom as Howadanda. Howadanda is ‘mushroom that grows on logs’, because in the wild some version of an oyster-like mushroom used to be found.

I haven’t seen the real Howadanda myself in a long time; that is part of all the changes due to our modern practices, which have come at the detriment of our biodiversity. There aren’t as many wild mushrooms growing any more and they aren’t as diverse as they used to be, as when, like I say, I foraged with my grandmother – we would collect loads and loads of different mushrooms.

Today I think the most common one you find now are chanterelles, or in the family of the chanterelle mushroom, and some Amanitas. For the others the diversity has very much decreased. So the oyster mushroom is closest to the native mushrooms you can find here, but we are hoping that as we develop, especially with our laboratory plans, we can put some focus on some of the wild mushrooms: if not growing them in the controlled environment at least helping spread their mycelium in the areas where these mushrooms used to grow natively. For now we are focusing on commonly cultivated mushrooms, so nothing specifically from Zimbabwe, but that’s something we definitely want to change.

S: What was it about mushrooms that inspired you to make them the foundation of your community resilience projects?

C: Mushrooms came into my life at a point when, as a little girl, I struggled for food. I tended a field that belonged to my grandmother and I farmed in that field only what a young girl of my age could, and at the end of the day I always had more waste biomass – which I could not eat – and not much grain.

Learning to farm mushrooms helped me to realise that what I had at the end of the farming season was not waste. It was a resource I could use. By converting it into mushrooms I could make extra income for myself, I could use it to create better food, and of course I could use it to make my favourite dish – dried mushrooms with peanut butter!

But really, back then, when I was about eleven, what really struck me was how in a small, controlled environment I could farm with ease, I could harvest mushrooms and sell them, from the proceeds I was able to pay for my expenses but more importantly I was able to start my dream of helping other orphans, which I had had since I was eight years old. If I could convert agricultural waste into food and income, then surely I could turn my life around, and share that with those that I want to help in my community. Right from the beginning this message was very very clear and that really re-ignited my passion, my hunger for life, for change, for growing out of my circumstances and becoming somebody. That was my biggest inspiration from mushrooms, seeing what was considered waste turning into a resource.

S: So how have you seen your mushroom and mushroom growing projects impact the lives of people involved?

C: I have seen people become able to respond to all the new challenges of climate change and recurrent droughts. And also, for women specifically, changes on the issues of land ownership, because this continues to be a major challenge. With mushrooms, we are able to have women carry out food production projects in a very small space, a controlled environment which responds to the challenges of climate change in a way that can enable us to continue to be productive.

And it also has an impact on issues around nutrition. If you look in the communities where we work you hear ‘oh so and so was struggling with their appetite or a specific diet they have to adhere to because of a condition’. In most cases it’s to do with HIV and Aids, where people have to stop eating meat because it’s not good for them any more, and so they can turn to mushrooms. Often you hear ‘as soon as I started eating mushrooms my appetite has improved and I can really enjoy my food’.

So we are seeing impacts responding to some of the pressing challenges that we all face globally but also those of individuals. Like raising an income in the face of rampant unemployment in this country where, you know, more than 80% of the people are not in formal employment and struggle to make a living. So we’re creating an opportunity, and promoting entrepreneurship in our communities, encouraging members to take up mushroom farming, that they use as a small business to secure their own food, and secure an income.

S: From here, what are your plans for expansion?

C: We are working to really develop the overall value chain, and to have a lot of the resources available locally, at a community level. That way we can have people engaging with mushrooms, not just as farmers, but as dealers who are selling all the implements to the mushroom farmers, and as local officers who help by advising and training mushroom growers in the areas we are facilitating the market for mushrooms through shops.

Specifically, in some of the areas where we’ve worked, we’ve seen young people struggling to join the project because they have a different view on what farming ought to be, but we open up all these avenues: to run a dealership that sells implements, or to run a facility that produces growing kits, and people come to buy them to finish the work of actual fructification. People who may not want to work directly with preparing substrates and things can just buy a growing kit, which they go and hang and sprinkle with water and harvest mushrooms and bring them to market. So we’re really trying to break down all the different processes and package them as small business ideas that people in every community can adopt and run with.

S: As a farmer and scientist, what has surprised or intrigued you most during your time setting up mushroom growing in communities?

C: I think as a farmer what has intrigued me most about mushroom growing in communities is that really, mushrooms are very adaptive. We can do this in every environment. I remember at the very beginning as a young girl bringing my dream to rural villages, and people were like ‘yeah, but mushrooms need to be in a sterile environment’. And today we’ve seen that really this is an initiative we can adapt to fit in every community, in every set-up and that people are keen on this. People learn about mushroom farming and they run with it.

One of the most eye-opening moments I had was in India; women in India said to me, ‘tending to mushrooms is much easier than tending to veggie gardens’ and that was one of the times that I was really impressed, that here we have an opportunity to help people shift their view of things that they have been doing for a long time, especially related to food production.

So the biggest surprise is to see people starting to think about food production in a different way after they start learning about mushrooms. People often think ‘so do I need a big piece of land’, and suddenly, after they begin, they start thinking ‘oh my god, in this small space I can do this, and this is how I can manipulate my environment for it to be able to be productive’.

It also teaches people about hygiene; in our trainings we often use the example of a baby – taking care of mushrooms is like taking care of a baby – and people can really relate and they can translate it into different areas of their lives. So the adaptivity of mushroom farming is something very interesting, and how that has really shifted the view of some of our participants continues to be impressive.

“WE’RE TRYING TO BREAK DOWN ALL THE DIFFERENT PROCESSES AND PACKAGE THEM AS SMALL BUSINESS IDEAS”

S: And how about as a community organiser, what has impressed you most about people’s response to your work?

C: The power it has to create a community, a community of people who recognise that we can always lever and influence the environment around us to change. It has been an important metaphor in really helping people understand how we can effect change, people who can create a community, one mushroom at a time.

In our projects, people can look after each other. What I see us doing when we work in a community, or put a group of teachers out in a community, is that as a small group they look after each other. You cannot teach about mushrooms without showing the interconnectedness of everything, and when you are a teacher and you are continuously telling that story, you start seeing it all around you, and it starts to become the way you live. Your relationship with the farmer next door changes as a result; you’re not competing, you are complementing each other: they farm the corn, you take the biomass from the corn, you use it to grow mushrooms. In cases where you don’t have a farm, you pass the spent substrate on to the next person, they use it to start a veggie garden.

This interconnectedness of things, which the mushrooms are able to teach, for me is very intriguing, in a very nice way, where you can see us re-activating the power of community, re-activating the spirit of Ubuntu.

S: As part of the international community of people working with fungi, what do you think this giant ‘mycelial’ network should be focusing on to ensure that we can face present and future global challenges?

C: I think the international community of people working with fungi has to continue focusing on improving access, not only to farming, but improving access to all the new initiatives around mushrooms. You look at mushrooms as medicines, you look at mushrooms as building materials, you look at mushrooms as packaging materials, you look at mushrooms even in some cases as material for making clothing. So we need to make accessible all of these things so people can really see what we can do to become more and more unconventional, what we can do to change our views of resources – for instance our view of what we have referred to as waste for so long.

I think we, as a community of practitioners, have an opportunity with something so flexible, something that can be used in so many different forms, we have an important role to play to model what networks could look like, to model how we can redefine resources and resource sharing. And so I think focusing on this aspect of improving access to the knowledge itself, improving access to processes that make everything more efficient, and just really the power of a network – making that more accessible can help people relate better to science.

When we were selling mushroom farming and everyone was thinking ‘this is for scientists, this is for people who have sterile environments’. We got to where people can say ‘this is the science of what happens in nature, and by observing closely what happens in nature, we also can do this’. To make the science accessible to villages is a power that we, as a community, wield and we should be able to use it to make people understand some of the most complex things in our lives today. To make people understand climate change better, and to see themselves becoming custodians, becoming champions of their environment, of the food system etc. Simplifying things and making them accessible is something we should continue to focus on to address some of the larger challenges we face globally.

“THE INTERCONNECTEDNESS OF ALL THINGS, WHICH THE MUSHROOMS ARE ABLE TO TEACH, IS VERY IMPRESSIVE, YOU CAN SEE US RE-ACTIVATING THE SPIRIT OF UBUNTU”

S: What have mushrooms taught you over the years?

C: Mushrooms have taught me that there is no waste. Everybody can become somebody.

Chido Govera illustration by Katie Mulligan. Oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus. Photography courtesy of Chido Govera and The Future of Hope.
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