Matt Cleaver, an independent business and mycology consultant, develops products and solutions for mushroom production and farm management. Matt grew up working in his father’s mushroom research laboratory in Santa Cruz, California, and accompanying him on numerous international volunteer trips. Having seen first-hand the difference volunteering can make, Matt also volunteers his expertise.
Matt’s most recent assignment, part of an USAID-funded project, was with a mushroom farmers’ cooperative near Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Yields had fallen to extremely low levels and members were not keen to dedicate additional resources to the endeavor. Although the cooperative had been taught mushroom growing 12 years earlier, the trainer had merely given instructions, and the rationale behind the methodology had been lost. To build the farmers’ capacity to solve the problems they faced, Matt taught them the reasons behind the techniques he demonstrated. As he taught, farmers made up songs to help them remember what they learned. The cooperative significantly raised its production and income by instituting simple changes.
But it wasn’t enough. Matt found that the cooperative lacked a crucial input – mushroom spawn. Spawn (essentially the seed for mushrooms) is something farmers can’t produce, but they also can’t import it. There was only one mushroom spawn producer in Malawi, the Natural Resources College in Lilongwe. Its quality was quite low and well over half of it was unusable. “If I were to leave the farmers after teaching them mushroom growing without addressing this unusable input, I would have been doing them a disservice; they would have given up within a couple years,” says Matt. “I had to come back and finish the job.” He returned as a volunteer at the College, introducing procedures that reduced contamination from 60%-100% to less than 30%; lower rates will require consistent electricity and upgraded equipment. Building on the momentum and increased confidence Matt’s work has generated, the cooperative built 14 new mushroom growing sheds, again dramatically boosting production and sales, as well as membership and production power.
Because lack of usable spawn is causing farmers throughout Central Africa to give up on mushrooms – which otherwise show promise for good profits – Matt is now working to expand African spawn production. He has joined forces with a Japanese volunteer to create a scaled-down spawn facility that meets the needs of farmers farther from Lilongwe. They anticipate replicating the facility in other parts of Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. With a colleague from North Carolina A&T State University, Matt is seeking investors to establish a large spawn production facility in Lagos, Nigeria. Spawn has a profit margin of 80-90% regionally, making it a good business opportunity. Matt hopes that his youth and hands-on attitude inspire young farmers to innovate and recognize that farming holds an exciting future.
The assignment doesn’t end when you leave. Boots on the ground are gone, but you still have to lend a hand when things don’t go as planned. They need to fall back on you as a resource and I’m happy to give that.
– Matt Cleaver, volunteer