When the nationwide lockdown was imposed a few months ago to contain the spread of Coronavirus, mushroom grower Manorama Singh from Lalganj, Bihar, knew that she needed to devise a plan to continue selling her produce. Manorama has 35 permanent employees and 70 people who work on a temporary basis. She knew that if she halted the sale of mushroom till the lockdown was lifted, her employees could end up starving.
Having fought against all odds to emerge as one of the biggest mushroom growers in Bihar, Manorama could not afford to twiddle her thumb. She says, “When the lockdown was announced, there were 500-600 kilos of mushroom growing in my laboratory every day. Before that, we used to send our mushrooms to Ranchi, Patna, Kolkata, Bokaro, and even Siliguri (West Bengal); but that stopped. I could not have terminated my staff, what would they have done?”
Manorama then chanced upon an ingenious way to continue selling mushrooms. She arranged 5-6 auto-rickshaws, stuck colourful posters on them, and recorded an audio message elaborating on the nutritional benefits of mushrooms. She says, “We got permission from the local administration and went in the nearby villages in those autorickshaws to sell the mushrooms. My employees took all the necessary precautions and we managed to sell all the produce. I did not have to fire any of my employees or cut their salaries.”
At a time when the largest businesses across the country are laying employees off and shutting offices, this is no mean feat.
Manorama explains her strategies for achieving this, “We continued getting orders for mushroom spawns and compost from farmers in nearby villages (during the lockdown); but we didn’t know how to deliver them to our clients. So we sought requisite permissions and spoke to the local correspondents of Hindi newspapers and TV channels who were touring villages and districts in Bihar reporting about the Coronavirus crisis. The spawns would be loaded in the press vehicles and we stuck a note with details of my bank account so that they could transfer the payment. We coordinated with the journalists to ensure they did not have to travel even a kilometer extra for delivering the spawns.”
On days when there would be mushrooms left unsold, she would make pickles, preserves, and dried mushroom powder, which would get sold along with the next batches.
The Initial Hardships
With an annual turnover of approximately Rs 1 crore, Manorama employs 65 women as daily wagers. Under Manorama, farmers in nearby villages have learnt the nuances of mushroom farming too.
Till a few years ago, Manorama used to run an NGO that helps farmers avail government schemes and assists them with attending agricultural training programmes in Bihar and nearby states.
“Once we had sent a group of farmers to Dr. Rajendra Prasad Agricultural University in Pusa, Bihar to gain knowledge on mushroom farming,” she recollects.
When the farmers shared their experiences with Manorama, she was intrigued, and wanted to learn mushroom farming too . She says, “I tasted mushrooms for the first time in my life in 2009 at a hotel in Patna and fell in love with it. I first tried to grow mushrooms on my own. I planted 200 bags of mushrooms of which only ten turned out well and the rest was ruined. At that time a professor from Dr. Rajendra Prasad University was touring the village conducting sessions on farming methods. He agreed to organize a session on mushroom farming at my place and that triggered my interest.”
However, it took a while for Manorama to make her in-laws see eye-to-eye with her plans. She recalls, “My children had grown up and my responsibilities had reduced. When I proposed the idea, it was met with some resistance from my in-laws; but my husband was very supportive. I kept growing batches of mushrooms and fed my family and they could see my dedication. I have always had an interest in farming - my father was a skilled farmer and I used to accompany him to the fields regularly.”
Once she had managed to convince her in-laws of the viability of the business, Manorama enrolled for a course of mushroom farming at Dr. Rajendra Prasad University in Patna. She had to travel 70km (one way) every day for the course. Yet she even went on to train herself at the Directorate of Mushroom Research in Solan, Himachal Pradesh last year.
Laying the groundwork and attaining success
For Manorama, the next challenge was to develop a customer base for mushrooms in Lalganj and the nearby villages. She says, “Nobody in the villages knew of mushrooms. I started making mushroom chilly, mushroom Manchurian, mushroom kheer, and such stuff and distributing in the villages to create awareness. I would distribute packets of dried mushroom among the elderly and explain how this is an excellent source of protein. As people’s interests developed, I started conducting sessions on mushroom farming. Attendees would come off from far off villages and I would sell raw mushrooms and mushroom food items to them. That is how the business grew.”
In 2015, Manorama was roped in by the Bihar government to visit villages and conduct sessions on mushroom farming. She recalls, “I had trained 3,200 farmers in just one week by going from village to village. We still impart training; now we get requests from farmers from different states. Even now, we are conducting sessions but we have reduced our batch size to maintain social distancing norms.”
Manorama received a grant of Rs 15 lakh from the government under the National Horticulture Mission in 2015, with which she built a lab and eight rooms for growing mushrooms. Ten more rooms are being built and thanks to the large air conditioners installed in these rooms, Manorama Singh cultivates mushrooms throughout the year.
In recognizance of Manorama’s stature as a changemaker, the district administration had appointed her as the district ambassador of Vaishali to spread awareness among voters for the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. She says, “There were life-size posters of me installed in the villages in the district. I would feel like a heroine. The respect and love I received, especially from the farming community, is something I will never forget.”
(Edited by Athira Nair)