One of the benefits of the lockdown has been the return to gardening among many, especially those living in semi-rural areas. In states like Nagaland, kitchen gardens are pretty common. People are well-versed in gardening. This activity has led to the ‘mushrooming’ of entrepreneurs who now understand and see mushrooms as a viable venture.
Dr Sosang Longkumer, Founder and Director, Konger Agritech, has been at the forefront of mushroom farming in Nagaland. As a scientist working with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, it is safe to say that he was well versed in the methods and techniques of farming. However, he took the idea one step further. He started Konger Agritech, a venture that not only grows mushrooms but also helps others start their ventures.
Thanks to Dr Longkumer, mushroom cultivation has not only become a common activity among self-help groups, several youths are also now involved in the trade. We spoke with Dr Longkumer about his journey, what makes Nagaland special for mushrooms, and whether he plans to scale up his operations.
When did you start and what were your reasons?
Konger Agritech has been a one-man army venture to start with, but we have now grown into a bigger team with a mix of technical and non-technical staff. Konger Agritech was officially incorporated in 2020, but before that, the lab was already set up and my mission had already begun sometime in 2018. To be precise, my interest in mushrooms began when Dr Rajesha, a senior scientist and my former colleague at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) unit in Nagaland, challenged me to grow mushroom cultures and make spawns inside the laboratory. This was sometime in 2017 when I was working as a research associate. Backed with my knowledge of microbiology and applied genetics, I completed the challenge. Dr Rajesha was impressed by the quality of my mushroom spawns and advised me to set up a spawn production lab to help farmers grow mushrooms all through the year. Mushroom farming is a profitable venture with low investment and early returns. It can be a full-time or an alternative source of income.
I had to procure a loan for setting up the lab as a lot of machinery, equipment, and chemicals for smooth functioning in a mushroom spawn laboratory.
Why did it take a pandemic for people to start growing mushrooms? How was the market for mushrooms (not the consumer market but the people interested in growing it) before the pandemic?
Mushroom cultivation has been a practice in the state for many years, especially Oyster mushrooms. However, earlier, it was more of seasonal cultivation during the winter months due to the unavailability of spawns. After I started my spawn production unit I have trained the farmers, especially the youth, to plan and take mushroom cultivation as a full-time venture. With proper planning, training and market potential many of them realised that it can be a full-time venture with year-round cultivation.
However, the increase in activity during the pandemic was more of a coincidence but surely, worked in our favour. Considering it’s a backyard activity and people were all holed up there were also people who took it up as hobby farming for personal consumption. Also, every Naga household takes to kitchen gardening very naturally, so cultivating mushrooms came easy. That said, I always believed Mushroom farming is very underrated and we are glad to see that it’s gaining some momentum now as people are realising its worth. It’s extremely cost-effective and does not require too much space and investment either and has good returns in a short period.
Mushroom is very much sought after in the state and it has always been procured from neighbouring states like Assam. Shiitake on the other hand is an exotic item and known to have great medicinal value. It’s mostly imported from Asian countries, though its demand is extremely high.
We have read that Nagaland provides a conducive environment for the growth of mushrooms? What makes the climate of the state so fertile for mushrooms? Do you think that other hill states (Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram) could also become fertile grounds for such mushrooms?
Oyster mushrooms can be grown in almost all the places across the country but Shiitake requires a specific climate and resources. Nagaland meets the requirements with the abundance of oak trees which is considered one of the best for Shiitake cultivation. Our northeastern hill states are blessed with good climatic conditions and natural resources hence is considered a hotspot for exotic mushrooms. Naga hills and hilly parts of Manipur is made up of rich and thick hardwood forest, among them, the dominant species is of Oaktree family. Nagas have been judiciously using oak for firewood and we have been following a sustainable pattern called tree pollarding so that the tree rejuvenates.
All the above conditions and the interest of farmers to try out for a new method of farming ignites the work in the ground.
How important is the self-help group angle for your startup? What made you choose a self-help model over, say, a much more capitalistic model of investing big sums (or inviting investors) and running a more Employer-Employee type structure?
We are not confined to the self-help group model alone as we do have a lot of individuals and organisations cultivating it but that said, we believe including self-help groups would enable us to accelerate production and make it a statewide activity with all climatically viable villages participating.
You have mentioned that in your journey, various government agencies and international agencies have stepped in with support. Can you tell us how they approached you (or you approached them) and how did their cooperation help you?
I received some press when a farmer tried and succeeded with my Shiitake Spawns and that I believe added to my credibility. No doubt there was a lot of word of mouth as well considering it is a small place. During that juncture, I met some senior government officials and pitched the concept of mushroom cultivation in Nagaland. All of them were positive and receptive to the ideas shared. One of the first departments that took it on was the Department of Forest under their JICA Project, thereafter we had the NSRLM (NRLM) who activated a state-wide project of Mushroom cultivation (Oyster and Shiitake) and we also served as the technical support partners to the Department of Horticulture.
I see a lot of talk about Shiitake mushrooms. Is there a reason why Shiitake mushrooms are preferred over other mushrooms, say, oyster or King oyster, Button, portobello, enoki, shimeji etc?
Yes, absolutely because it is an exotic mushroom and known for its medicinal qualities. It’s a gourmet mushroom grown and consumed popularly in Asian countries. In India, it is mostly imported from China and Thailand and very highly-priced.
Also, based on the availability of resources in the state, oyster mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms suit our farmers best at the moment. Since these mushrooms are easy to cultivate and do not involve any difficult technical inputs. Having said that, as the mushroom-preneur community grows bigger we also intend on adding various exotic mushrooms to our portfolio but we are just waiting for the right time.
Where lies the major part of your market? How can a retail consumer approach you for your products? Do you have the production model right now to scale up production to supply on, say, a national level? Or would you rather keep things local and simple?
As of this point, we are selling the fresh oysters and shiitake in the local markets only and Nagaland mushrooms have an excellent market as the consumption is very high in the state. We do cater to small orders outside the state especially of dehydrated oyster mushrooms via our Social media pages and apart from that our farmers also cater to their direct customers.
Sure enough, we do have a lot of queries and demands from outside the state starting from B2C brands to potential buyers for the export markets and we are already working towards fulfilling them.
Apart from raising mushroom-preneurs and increasing productivity a lot of our efforts are currently being put into streamlining the supply chain because we want to cater to customers across the country. We are already in talks with a few companies in the mainstream market who will be procuring from us in the coming months thus creating a sustainable market for the farmers and making it easy for us to trade excess production. It is our dream to make Nagaland the mushroom capital of the country. And to get there, Konger Agritech is striving and doing everything in its best capacity to increase the number of mushroom-preneurs and making our dream a reality.