Finding the Pearls in Oyster Mushrooms

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By: Nkukuleko Nene

When Ugan Pillay, the owner of Valley Mushrooms began cultivating oyster mushrooms on his family farm in Cliffdale four years ago, he did it for his family to maintain a healthy diet. “I started growing the mushroom for my family’s consumption, as they contain statins which naturally lower cholesterol and this has been researched and documented worldwide, explains Pillay.  He supplied about 15 shops in Hillcrest, Phoenix, and Chatsworth in Durban, including big retailers such as Spar and Oxford Supermarket.

“I started growing the mushroom for my family’s consumption, as they contain statins which naturally lower cholesterol and this has been researched and documented worldwide, explains Pillay.  He supplied about 15 shops in Hillcrest, Phoenix, and Chatsworth in Durban, including big retailers such as Spar and Oxford Supermarket.

Ugan Pillay was brought up on the farm where his parents were vegetable farmers who specialised in growing green beans and coriander, but he opted to grow the exotic mushroom.  “I loved oyster mushrooms and so did my family, it is a delicacy and they were extremely scarce”.

The production on the farm was always more than his family could consume so he took them to the local market and that demand sparked a business opportunity.

Pillay has traveled to Thailand and India where he visited farms to hone his skills. His business demand has helped to create more job opportunities for the people who live in the informal settlement near his farm. Pillay now employs 22 trained staff members. The mushroom farm produces a harvest of about 2-3 tons monthly.

Pillay’s long-term goal is to export his produce. “It is only mushrooms, but that is in the pipeline for next year. Not many people understand the long hours we have to endure to get first-grade mushrooms”, explains Pillay”.

Pillay said he used agricultural waste or by-products as a substrate. This process lasts four to six weeks and once logs are fully colonised they are then ready to grow mushrooms.

Pillay has always envisioned himself as an entrepreneur and farming exotic mushrooms were fulfilling that vision. A good friend encouraged him to apply for the South African Breweries Foundation, Tholoana enterprise development programme which granted him a sponsorship of R250 000 to expand his business.

Pillay used the money to buy climate-control devices and to attend various workshops to enhance his skill set.  “The devices are expensive and help to regulate heat and humidity for the successful growth of oyster mushrooms”.

The technology also helps to control the amount of water needed for the project. His long-term goal is to see every household introduce a mushroom diet as an alternative, affordable source of protein. “For my business to succeed I do a lot of research to expand my knowledge and seek more modern ways of growing mushrooms”.

This article was first published as ‘Wild About Exotic Mushrooms’ in Sunday Tribune.

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Ugan PillayUgan Pillay is the owner of Valley Mushrooms. The company grows and distributes exotic mushrooms to local retailers in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Ugan Pillay was one of 15 businesses in the province to be selected for the SAB Foundation Tholoana Enterprise development programme. Follow Valley Mushrooms on Facebook.