Over a decade ago, mushroom fungi were lesser-known in Darbhanga city of Bihar. According to national figures, the state output of mushroom farming was zero and it continued that way until 2015 when the trend picked up.
But Pushpa Jha was ahead of her time as she learnt to grow them in 2010.
Staying ahead of the curve also meant that mushrooms were not in demand, and she had to create a market and struggle to attract customers. But today, her efforts have paved the way for her success and many more.
It began when her husband Ramesh, a convent school teacher, learned about a mushroom farming programme organised by the government agriculture department at Pusa, Samastipur. “My husband did not want me to sit idle at home and encouraged me to spend time in a productive activity,” she tells The Better India.
So, Pushpa, a high school dropout, accompanied him. However, upon reaching the training centre on the day, officials informed them that the seats for the training session were full. Ramesh requested and pleaded with them to accommodate Pushpa for the six-day training workshop.
And it was that training that helped her become a successful entrepreneur and empowered thousands of other women.
A Mushroom Revolution
After completing the training, Pushpa started growing mushrooms with a minimal investment of Rs 500 and finding free space in their 600 sq feet house. “I grew mushrooms under the bed or some humid space in the corner. I used wheat husks and rotten hay balls as the medium to grow the fungi,” the 43-year-old says.
She packed the material in a polythene bag and arranged the balls in a row. “It created optimum humid conditions and I succeeded in growing them. Initially, I grew and cooked them as a vegetable dish. After gaining confidence, I decided to grow them for commercial purposes,” Pushpa says.
Pushpa identified a patch of land in Balbhadrapur village and constructed a bamboo room with locally available materials to create a humid environment. She began growing button mushrooms in 1,000 bags and offered the produce in the local market. But no one bought them. Mushroom being a perishable item, she incurred heavy losses.
“There were hardly any people who knew about mushrooms and how to consume them. I started growing mushrooms and distributing 200-gram packets in the neighbourhood and market for free. I taught people to cook and consume them in the form of vegetables, pakodas (Mushroom fritters) and other items,” she says.
She adds that the tasty food delicacies were well received and motivated people to consume mushrooms. Slowly, she received orders earning her Rs 500 per day. Apart from button mushrooms, she expanded to growing oyster and milky varieties.
Her popularity grew, and so did the profits. Eventually, she started creating her vermicompost and preparing spawns to reduce production costs. Observing her success, women from the neighbourhood began requesting her for lessons in mushroom farming.
“I appreciated their curiosity and encouraged them to grow mushrooms at home. Women are busy with chores and finish them by 11 am or noon. They are generally free during mid-day and get busy again in the evening around 5 pm to cook dinner or take care of the children. So, I suggested they spend two hours of their free time growing mushrooms,” she says.
Soon, Pushpa started convincing more women to take up the project. “Many women involve themselves in sewing, embroidery and other low income-earning activities. I suggested they grow mushrooms as it demanded less time and paid more returns,” she says.
In 2015, Pushpa started training women on a full-scale and helping them become financially independent. Today, she has trained over 20,000 persons. “Initially, I provided free training for women and even provided them with spawns. At times I offered them money to assist the women set up a room to grow mushrooms. It helped them gain confidence and not face the burden of investment costs,” she adds.
Beena Devi, a resident of Dhanauli village, was one of the women who approached Pushap for help. She says, “My husband’s earning was insufficient to meet our increasing expenses. So, I decided to undergo training from Pushpa. The skills I learnt helped me become financially independent within a year.”
Additionally, Beena went on to train over 20 women in her neighbourhood.
Empowering Women, Prisoners & Kids
At present, people from neighbouring districts also approach Pushpa to undergo training in mushroom farming. “Now, men also come to learn mushroom farming. There have been instances when city folk have come to me for a 10-day training course,” she shares.
Pushpa says that her workshops have only increased with time. “I am invited to schools, colleges and the central jail in Darbhanga to train students and inmates in mushroom farming. They are quick learners and get commendable results. I feel proud that my skills can help prisoners become financially independent after they rejoin society,” she adds.
Pushpa says, “People don’t need to come to me. The government and other individuals organise many workshops throughout the year and teach the same techniques. I feel happy as long as many people benefit from the same.”
The training and sales from the mushroom earn her Rs 2 lakh a year. “My husband and son help me with the work. Moreover, my son is studying horticulture in Allahabad and wants to pursue farming to expand our work,” she says.
Pushpa has started processing mushrooms to make them into pickles, powder, biscuits and samosa snacks. “On many occasions, the mushrooms perish due to a short shelf-life. So rather than letting them go to waste, some women and I dry the mushrooms to convert them into powder. The powder can then be used in multiple food products,” she says.
Pushpa wants to reach out to more women and spread this revolution she started years ago. “The women in our region do not seek jobs and are often confined to the boundaries of their homes. But mushroom farming makes them entrepreneurs and develops their personality by gaining dignity, respect and confidence,” she adds.
Edited by Yoshita Rao