A burning desire to address malnutrition and food insecurity saw Sydwell Sihlangu transforming his crop science thesis project into a thriving business, using a low-cost technology for the production of oyster mushrooms in water-scarce environments.


The master's student from North-West University established the African Hut Mushroom Dome after developing a new technology for the cultivation of oyster mushrooms – which are typically grown in temperate and subtropical regions – in the semi-arid Mahikeng region in the North West.


Mahikeng is known for its harsh summers, with temperatures reaching 37 degrees Celsius, making the area unsuitable for many plant species, particularly the kind of mushrooms Sihlangu is harvesting.


Sihlangu's technology allows for the fruiting of oyster mushrooms under harsh climatic conditions, and without the need for any fossil energy, making it a milestone in crop science and a potentially important contributor to food security. Using the leftover residue from crop harvests, and requiring less water, it enables the cultivation of mushrooms at a much lower cost than conventional commercial methods.


Sihlangu, who is now studying for a PhD in Horticultural Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is being supported by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) through the Grassroots Innovation Programme implemented by its entity the Technology Innovation Agency.


The young innovator explains that oyster mushrooms are highly tolerant to variations in temperature, relative humidity, light levels and carbon dioxide levels, making them an ideal crop for poorly resourced smallholder farmers who often live in unstable environmental conditions. The mushrooms can be produced on a small piece of land, have relatively short production cycles, and require low production inputs.


However, studies had concluded that it was impossible to produce mushrooms in climatic conditions such as those prevalent in the North West – and in many other parts of the country and the continent – except by means of costly technologies.


Sihlangu's innovation has overturned this wisdom, providing an effective, low-cost technology that is easy to use for smallholder farmers. This, Sihlangu realised, was key to the successful commercialisation of oyster mushrooms in an area such as Mahikeng. The mushrooms can be cultivated both as a food and a means of generating an income. Adoption of this technology by rural communities will not only improve food security, but will also encourage rural-based bio-entrepreneurship.  


"This initiative will contribute to the government's rural development programme, which seeks to establish agriculture enterprises that will create employment in rural areas, thereby curbing rural-urban migration", Sihlangu says.


Oyster mushrooms have a high protein content, are rich in fibre, low in sodium, and are an excellent source of a number of essential vitamins and minerals. Studies have also indicated that dried oyster mushrooms contain a natural lovastatin-like compound that helps to reduce cholesterol levels and thus reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.


In 2017, Sihlangu received an award for the best-researched scientific innovation at the Provincial Youth in Agriculture Awards hosted by the North West Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.


And earlier this year, on the strength of his technology, he attended a Leaders in Innovation Fellowship training programme on technology commercialisation at the Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom.