A dusty footpath to Nelson Lulanga’s place at Chipoka in Salima District looks less trodden with dry leaves forming a thin carpet on the already nondescript route.
It is at the end of this winding trail that the 24-year old is laying foundations of what would soon turn him into a big-time entrepreneur he has always aspired to become.
“It’s a dream come true for me,” says Nelson, stepping into a grass-thatched structure stacked with packs of chopped maize stalks. These are materials for mushroom production and are enough to produce 600 kilogrammes of oyster mushrooms.
If he sells all the mushrooms at the anticipated K500 per quarter kilogramme, Nelson could become K1.2 million richer after investing only K75 000.
He could also become the richest young man in his community and an employer to the youth in the surrounding villages.
“One day”, he says, “this place will flood with people who will come to buy my mushrooms and learn how to produce their own! I will then be able to take good care of my siblings and employ other youths to help when the business grows.”
A holder of a diploma in food nutrition and livelihood security from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luarnar), Nelson is project officer for Nkhoma Synod Youth and Children’s Department stationed in the lakeshore district along the southern half of Lake Malawi.
Nelson counts himself lucky to be on payroll and earning a monthly income, but he has always aspired to diversify his earnings by venturing into mushroom production.
He fell in love with the enterprise while studying at Luanar from 2013 to 2015. Unfortunately, his course did not cover much on mushroom production as an entrepreneurship opportunity, but its nutritional aspect.
His efforts to pursue his dream enterprise after graduating from college became even harder as all available courses required huge fees to enroll.
Having lost her divorced mother in 2016, life for Nelson was unbearable as he became a sole provider for his four siblings at an early age of 20.
This made it almost impossible for him to even start thinking of saving from his monthly salary.
“I needed financial support if I was to pursue training in mushroom production,” says Nelson.
However, a rare opportunity unveiled itself in February this year.
The USAid-funded project, Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity (Sheama) in partnership with Luanar, offered a mushroom production course and scholarships.
Sheama, which is being implemented by Arizona State University, seeks to increase Malawi’s skilled and employable workforce through increased higher education access to the most vulnerable.
This it does by increasing access through face to face, quality distance learning and provision of short courses while working with public universities and the industry.
The mushroom production and entrepreneurship training was, therefore, one of the project’s interventions that saw Nelson finding himself back at Luanar to learn mushroom cultivation together with other 28 participants—all on full USAid-scholarship.
The two-week course consisted of one week of face-to-face and practical sessions at Bunda Campus and the rest through distance and e-learning.
Through the short course, Nelson was exposed to all phases of oyster and button mushroom production, post-harvest handling and marketing.
“The course developed our competence in the practice of profitable mushroom production,” he quips.
Fully charged to roll out his business plan, Nelson saved K75 000 from his daily upkeep from the course to construct a mushroom shelter.
With mentorship from his lecturer, Nelson bought seeds from Luanar-Bunda Campus for spawning. He then proceeded to gather maize stalks for stovers, filling them in plastic bags and stocking them in the mushroom shelter.
Today, the 24-year-old can proudly stand in the doorway and watch his oyster mushrooms grow.
“In many countries mushroom production is big business, we can do the same here,” he says.
True to his word, various studies indicate that Malawi has high potential for widespread mushroom production because of availability of abundant materials from agriculture wastes that could be used for production.
A 2014 study by Kyushu University in Japan observed, however, that there was need to popularise the crop and build capacity in the art of mushroom farming.
“With mushroom cultivation, ordinary people from communal areas, peri-urban dwellers and commercial farmers can earn considerable income and employ many others,” reads the study.
Like Nelson, many students trained in mushroom production through the intervention are working towards starting their own small-scale businesses, raising hopes for self-employment and job creation.
Sheama chief of party, Dr Zikani Kaunda says Nelson’s ambitious drive exemplifies how industry-tailored courses and distance learning can help many youths acquire employable skills.
“There are many youths out there who need to be reached with higher education and we expect more youths to gain skills in various sectors in a manner that will make them employable and become job creators,” he says.
Kaunda says 25 more short courses identified through a needs assessment have been lined up through Luanar, Mzuzu University, The Polytechnic, Chancellor College and Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must).
Over 80 000 young Malawians leaving secondary schools each year cannot access higher education.
Open distance learning, short courses and scholarships for the vulnerable helps them acquire higher learning and relevant skills.
Like Nelson, some employ themselves to create jobs.