Namibia to Explore Kalahari Truffle

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By Wezi Tjaronda WINDHOEK The Kalahari truffle is one of Namibia’s many untapped natural resources with immense potential to bring the country much needed foreign currency. The truffle, an edible mushroom that resembles a potato tuber is a sought after delicacy especially in Italy and France, where a simple 1 kg costs over N$7 000 (US$1 200). Last year, a local newspaper carried a picture of an Italian truffle weighing 1.2 kg which was auctioned at a whooping N$666 000 (US$111 000). In Namibia, a bag of 25 kg may cost one as little as N$24 or US$4, which Professor Osmund Mwandemele, the Founding Director of the Sam Nujoma Marine and Coastal Resources Research Centre in Henties Bay says, “It’s a pity we are not marketing it to get a decent income.” In fact, Professor Keto Mshingeni, who wrote a paper on the intriguing treasures of the tuberous truffles and ganoderma mushrooms with potential for HIV/AIDS treatment, said that price at which the Italian truffle was auctioned “makes the truffle significantly more expensive than gold”. Realising this potential to boost the living standards of the people along the Kalahari Desert where the truffle is found, the Southern African Biosciences Network, of which Professor Mwandemele is the Chairperson has submitted a project proposal for funding to the Nepad Biosciences Secretariat. He said it is a viable resource, which if explored could bring in a lot of money into the country. Mwandemele told New Era Wednesday the project would look at promoting mushroom farming technologies in the SADC region. However, the truffle, which has a symbiotic relationship with the wild melon fruit, is one of the mushrooms that need a lot of work because it is difficult to grow. Said Mwandemele: “If we can be able to unravel what makes the truffle grow, then we can cultivate it.” He added that the way it is, the mushroom needs to be harvested sustainably, hence the need to cultivate it. According to Mshingeni’s paper, which was co-authored by other two universities in Tanzania and China, African truffles are grossly undervalued, largely due to people’s ignorance on the global respect which truffles demand. Apart from this, there is lack of aggressiveness and skills in marketing them and also due to lack of detailed information on the biology, ecology and natural products chemistry of Africa’s truffle mushroom heritage. The project proposal, for which funding is being sought, is also looking at setting up incubation centres or technology parks to transfer technology to would-be entrepreneurs in mushroom farming. Namibia has its own initiative, which offers training to those who want to engage in such activities. Presently, there are two groups of people in Katutura and Ondangwa, who have been trained to undertake mushroom farming. The Katutura project, which is funded by Nedbank, trained 50 people, of whom only seven are active. Alfons Mosimane, the Project Manager of the Zeri Regional Project said the project aims at empowering local communities to produce mushroom for food and an income. Mushrooms supply the body with protein, carbohydrates, lipid, vitamins and inorganic minerals. According to a booklet on “Mushrooms and Human Health”, mushrooms contain essential amino acids that often lack in some of Africa’s most staple cereal crops. In Henties Bay, the initiative put up a production house with funds from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), which will benefit local communities there. Depending on the outcome of assessments, which will be undertaken, the project will be expanded to Gobabis and Mariental. Mushroom production is not a very expensive venture as a mushroom house may cost in the range of N$5 000 depending on what material is used. Local material such as grass, sawdust, maize and mahangu stalks can be used as substrate for growing mushrooms. In the long term, a forum comprising mushroom producers countrywide will be formed to try and find alternative ways of growing mushrooms such as in traditional mud huts and also to use veteran farmers as mentors for would-be entrepreneurs.