Disability no barrier for mushroom farmer Charity Nkalanga

Despite physical challenges, Charity Nkalanga from Mpumalanga defies odds with her backyard mushroom farm. Born with spina bifida, she proves that perseverance and adaptation can lead to success in agriculture

By Candice Khumalo – Food for Mzansi

Mushroom farming demands physical endurance. It involves tasks such as lifting heavy materials and enduring long periods of bending and standing. This is why venturing into mushroom farming might not seem like the most obvious path for an agricultural teacher living with a disability.

Despite these challenges, Charity Nkalanga from Mpumalanga refuses to let her disability due to spina bifida define her. Instead, she has devised methods to adapt and grow her backyard mushroom farm.

Spina bifida is a condition where the spinal column does not close completely during fetal development, leading to varying degrees of physical and neurological disabilities. It can result in paralysis, bowel and bladder issues, and difficulties with mobility.

Born this way

“I was born with this disability… My neck is short, and if I stay upright for a long time or stands for a long time, my backbone hurts,” Nkalanga says.

While her disability may make some aspects of mushroom farming more challenging, she says there are also many ways in which it can be an advantage. 

“Additionally, my experience with my disability has given me a unique perspective on life, which I believe makes me a better farmer.”

Starting a mushroom business

Nkalanga started farming oyster mushrooms in Nkomazi, Kamhlushwa in August 2023 after researching products that are very scarce in Mzansi’s agricultural sector.

To bridge the gap in mushroom production, Nkalanga started her farming business called Mche Oyster Mushroom Farm.

“I’ve been using a backyard with three rooms that we no longer use at home because mushrooms should be farmed indoors since they’re fungi, to avoid bacteria introduced in the production,” she says.

Although she is already proud of her progress, she believes in starting on a small scale and working on her expansion.

“There are so many retailers who call me to check if I can supply them, but unfortunately, my production, for now, is for individuals since I won’t meet the demands of the retailers in terms of the quantity they will want. So, expansion is my goal.”

Nkalanga is proud of what she has achieved and wishes to expand her farming efforts to include various mushroom varieties as well as mushroom spices, sauces, sausages, and even producing her own mushroom spawn.

A beginner’s perspective

“I chose oyster mushrooms because they are relatively easy to grow, making them a good choice for beginners,” Nkalanga shares. “Oyster mushrooms are relatively inexpensive, making them a good option for those on a budget.”

She elaborates on crucial maintenance tasks in mushroom farming like ensuring cleanliness in growing areas, maintaining high air and water quality, and monitoring pH levels, alongside careful monitoring and pruning of mushroom growth.

According to Nkalanga, the biggest challenges she is currently facing include the issue of controlling temperatures since she doesn’t have humidifiers. For the successful growth of oyster mushrooms, she explains that the rooms need to be kept at a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (15 – 21°C). 

“However, there are several steps that I take to help regulate the temperature. Firstly, it’s important to choose a growing medium that has good temperature-retaining properties, such as straw, which I’m using as my substrate.

“Secondly, it’s important to make sure the growing area is well-ventilated, as this can help regulate the temperature.

“Thirdly, it’s important to keep an eye on the humidity levels, as this can also affect the temperature. Finally, I monitor the temperature regularly and adjust it as needed,” she explains.

Nkalanga shares that the rooms should also be kept dark, as oyster mushrooms prefer low-light conditions. To keep the rooms dark, she uses curtains to cover the windows.

“I also make sure to use low-wattage bulbs for any necessary lighting. Additionally, I avoid using any bright lights when working in the rooms, as this can also affect the mushrooms’ growth.”

Balancing teaching and farming

When Nkalanga is not attending to the needs of her mushrooms, she is teaching agricultural sciences at Njeyeza Secondary School in Schoemansdaal. She’s been teaching since 2020 and loves the opportunity to share her knowledge about agriculture with students.

“I think it’s important for students to understand where their food comes from and how it’s produced. My favourite thing about being an agricultural teacher is making an impact on students and helping them discover their potential,” she shares.

Nkalanga mentions that her bachelor of education in agriculture qualification has also assisted her a lot in her venture. It allows her to learn as she continues with her farming.

“Oyster mushrooms can be susceptible to pests like slugs and snails, which can be controlled with the use of traps, baits, etc. But my agricultural qualifications help me learn how to properly maintain the growing environment.

“Contamination is another common challenge in farming oyster mushrooms, but my agricultural qualifications taught me to properly sterilise the equipment and my substrate before inoculation and prevent contamination,’ she shares.

Advice for aspiring farmers

Growing up watching her grandfather tend to their backyard farm filled with cows, goats, and chickens instilled in her a deep passion for agriculture, she says.

Supported by her loving family, Nkalanga manages her workload by planning each day and avoiding overexertion.

Her message to aspiring farmers is to pursue their dreams relentlessly, regardless of external validation or funding. And to fellow disabled individuals, “Stand [tall] and be confident in who you are. Do not be discouraged. We can do more. It is only the physical appearance [because] mentally, we are very healthy.”



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