Laos: Mushroom Cultivation Is the First Step towards Financial Independence

It is said that approximately 160,000 people in Laos (2.8% of the population) are PWDs, and 75% of them are between 15 and 64, which means that they should be part of the workforce in the country. However, they only have a few employment opportunities because commuting to work is rather challenging and a persistent stereotype prevails that “we cannot expect PWDs to be productive.” Our correspondent, Haruhiko Mori, reports on AAR Japan’s support in promoting entrepreneurship on a small scale for the purpose of improving the status quo. In addition, Yuki Sakurai from our Tokyo Office introduces the facility that provides job opportunities to those in disaster-stricken areas in Japan.

In order to alleviate the friction between local people

With a limited number of job training facilities, the Laotian Government has not been able to provide PWDs in rural areas with a sufficient amount of support to obtain jobs. Female PWDs, in particular, have a very limited number of job opportunities, finding it very difficult to make a living with a stable income. Since December 2018, AAR has been closely collaborating with LDPA (Lao Disabled People’s Association) in Sayabouly Province and Oudomxai Province. Mainly targeting female PWDs and their family members, we started an initiative to encourage entrepreneurship on a small scale by training them in mushroom cultivation and farming of catfish and frogs. We expect them to start their own business at home and be able to financially support themselves in their own community.

PWDs and their family members (in blue shirts), AAR and LDPA staff (in navy blue shirts), the instructor and the government staff attended the on-the-job-training.
    (June 20th, 2019, in Phiang County in Sayabouly Province)

Mushroom cultivation for PWDs - changes seen through the training sessions 

We held a 3-day training session for mushroom cultivation in February and March in 2019.
One advantage of mushroom cultivation is that the initial cost is small because you don’t need a lot of space to start it. In addition, the cultivation does not require a lot of manpower for cleaning even if cleaning the beds and watering the mushrooms may be troublesome at times. After a lecture about mushroom cultivation by an experienced instructor, the participants started to make a  mushroom kit as part of the on-the-job- training (OJT).

PWDs and Haruhiko Mori (right) are making a mushroom cultivation kit at the OJT.
(February 12th, 2019, in Phiang County in Sayabouly Province)
At the OJT session, sawdust, which serves as culture media for mushrooms (substance containing necessary nutrients for culture), is mixed with rice bran, sugar and magnesium sulfate and other things. Then, with an appropriate amount of water, it is mixed until the culture media becomes uniform in its content.  After that, the culture media is put into bags with a lid. These bags are then put into a metal drum and sealed before being sterilized by heating for about six hours. After waiting for a day, fungus thread is planted. 30 or 40 days after that, mushrooms start to come out and harvesting usually lasts for about three months.

The instructor (left) and the AAR local staff (second from the right) are showing the
    participants in OJT how to make a mushroom cultivation kit.
         (February 18th, 2019, in Phiang County in Sayabouly Province)

During the OJT, the PWDs and their family members worked together and made approximately 170 mushroom cultivation kits. At first, there were some people who simply continued working without chatting with others, but gradually they began to open up and started to interact with each other. On the 3rd day, they were even able to share their concerns or information, sometimes smiling at one another.

Demand for mushrooms, a favorite for Laotian people

Japanese people often enjoy eating mushrooms, and so do the people in Laos who eat them almost every day. There are a variety of mushroom dishes in Laos, where people put them in soup, fry or deep-fry them. Mushrooms are used in one of their traditional soup dishes called Larp, and there is also mushroom sauce that local people put on their rice. As you can see, there is a steady demand for mushrooms in Laos.

Since the training session, the PWDs have been involved in sales promotions by advertising and putting up ads about their products at the local market, as well as spreading the information in their community about the sales of mushroom through word of mouth.  On some days, they can now harvest as many as 4 to 5 kilograms of mushrooms a day. Selling mushrooms directly to the villagers has several advantages. For one thing, they can provide fresh mushrooms to local people. In addition, they can cut down on the costs of transport and packing, and they can do without extra workers. Moreover, they can now earn more income by not selling wholesale to agricultural cooperatives or a larger corporation. To our joy, we have never heard of any of their mushrooms left unsold. Even those who find it difficult to sell their products away from home have their own share of work in whatever areas they can, such as helping at the harvest or taking care of mushrooms.

One of the PWDs successfully harvested fresh mushrooms using the cultivation kit.  
 (May 18th, 2019, in Phiang County in Sayabouly Province)

One of the PWDs and his family built a hut next to their house for cultivating mushrooms with the materials they  collected themselves.
          (April 25th, 2019, in Nga County in Oudomxay Province)

Helping the PWDs to take their first step

It is true that this business does not lead to a large income for the PDWs since it is run at home on a small scale. However, this has certainly proved to be a big step towards their financial independence as they have actively been engaged in growing mushrooms and working on effective methods of selling their products, while interacting with local people.  By supporting this initiative, AAR is going to support the PWDs by creating a place where they can actively be involved, so that they will become more financially independent. 
 Ms.Aieng (left) and a villager (right) are smiling as they sell fresh mushrooms. They don’t have to go all the way to the market far away from their village to sell their products.
         (June 19th, 2019, in Phiang County in Sayabouly Province)

Helping the PWDs become more involved in society - some examples in Japan-Yuki Sakurai from Tokyo Office

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, AAR has been supporting local welfare offices by providing materials and equipment necessary for their activities and helping them with new product development. One such example is “Workhouse Kururinoki” set up by a general incorporated association named “Kururi” in Higashi-Matsushima City in Miyagi, which was opened as a support for continuous employment service Type B in 2013. The ten people, who registered themselves at that time, were all PWDs who were affected by the Earthquake in 2011. They now live in public housing for restoration. Since 2018, Kururi has been working on the development of processed products using the mushrooms produced by mushroom-bed cultivation. In that year, AAR provided them with a refrigerator and a vacuum-packing machine, which led to a steady shipment of processed mushrooms.

Inside a greenhouse where mushrooms are cultivated in an employment support institution
The people employed at Kururi are engaged in activities that even the PWDs in Laos would be able to take up, such as taking care of mushroom beds, watering mushrooms, transporting and harvesting the products. Kururi tries to find out about the  personality of every employee and makes sure that they all feel pride and satisfaction in their work. The staff at Kururi feel that it is important for the PWDs to be involved in society, which is why they encourage the employees to communicate and interact with other people, instead of just coming to the institution to work. Just like in Laos, the Workhouse Kurinoki is committed to offering employment opportunities to the disabled, thus integrating them into society through participation and involvement.

Haruhiko Mori from Vientiane, Laos
After graduating from college, Mori worked for a trading company for four years. Then he was stationed in Laos as a volleyball instructor as a Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteer. During his stay, he became interested in NGOs that rendered support to meet the needs of local people. He joined AAR in April, 2018, and has been stationed in Laos since. Mori is from Kanagawa Prefecture.
    (profile as of the date of the article)

Japanese-English translation by Ms. Yoko Natsume
This article has been translated by volunteers as part of the AAR Japan's Volunteer Programme. Their generous contributions allow us to spread our activities and ideas globally, through an ever-growing selection of our reports from the field.