Patel, who opened a spawn lab in Rajgir in September 2011, says mushroom cultivators from several parts of Bihar, and even nearby states, come to her to buy seedlings now. There’s reason why they do: earlier one had to travel all the way to Delhi or Solan in Himachal Pradesh to get the spawns. And that was only half the battle, for it was no less than a Herculean task to bring the spawns to Nalanda without running them.
Patel remembers her own fight over buying spawns and then getting them to Nalanda, when she started a business on a small scale in Hilsa town in 2000 and had to travel to other states to buy the seedlings.
Working her way up in small ways since, Patel, like most entrepreneurs, had her moment of ‘enlightenment’ in 2009, when she got in touch with the Agriculture Technology Management Agency, or ATMA. Soon, the Botany graduate from Hilsa College in Nalanda was sent to Pantnagar, Uttarakhand, to get training in mushroom cultivation.
Already aware that mushroom is easy to cultivate, provided the spawns are available locally, she next underwent training in spawn-producing at Solan in 2010. Buying a small autoclave, she started producing spawns with the help of ultraviolet tubes at home, at a minuscule level initially.
The First Small Steps
Patel acknowledges the inspiration lent by Nalanda’s district agriculture officer Sudama Mahto, who was ATMA’s programme director of as well in 201o: “I wanted to set up a spawn lab in Nalanda. But I could not have done it without Mahto’s motivation and insight, and district magistrate Sanjay Kumar Agrawal’s help.”
While opening the lab at Rajgir cost her Rs 15 lakh, Patel says she was helped to a large extent by the National Horticulture Mission Programme, which helped her arrange half the investment. The rest, she says, came from banks and her family.
The local administration and the agriculture ministry also encouraged her mission, Patel says.
A year since its inauguration, the lab is now frequented by hundreds of mushroom cultivators from not only Nalanda but Dhanbad, Gaya, Ranchi, Patna and Hazipur as well. Patel says she sells 50 kg to 60 kg spawns every day at Rs 80 per kg. She says 10 to 15 kg mushroom can be cultivated from each 1-kg packet of spawns.
"We produce mainly milky white, button and oyster type mushrooms. It takes nearly two months to produce spawns ready to be sold in the market,” she says.
According to Patel, she zeroed in on Rajgir because it is a tourist place and, besides, electricity supply is not erratic there. Her husband Dharam Dutt Singh, who runs an NGO, has stood by Patel in each of her decisions.
The Next Big Step
Running her lab at present with four employees out of a rented house, Patel is “very excited” at the thought of opening a spawn lab in her own building soon.
And thanks largely to her efforts, aganwadi kendras of Nalanda now include mushroom on their menu once a week due to its high nutritional value. "The local administration has now tied up with Sudha (Bihar’s milk cooperative) to sell mushroom at Sudha counters,” district magistrate Sanjay Agrawal says. “So there is no dearth of a market in Nalanda.”
But besides being an entrepreneur, Patel is also a firm believer in women’s empowerment and trains several groups of women to make them self-reliant. “As a child, I always acted as any male child because I had lost my father at a very young age. There was no discrimination in our family.”
She now wants to pass that on to fellow women, for “women’s empowerment can never be a reality unless women themselves come forward to become self-reliant”.