Why you should care

Because resistance can emerge in unexpected forms.

Palestinian friends Sameer Khraishi, Wadia Nassar, Tayeb Akel and Mahmoud Kuhail were unwilling to purchase Israeli produce, so they raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to establish their own mushroom farm, Amoro, in Jericho in 2013. For the first time, markets in Ramallah, Nablus, Jericho and Bethlehem could offer locally produced whitecap mushrooms.

Like most of the nine mushroom farms in neighboring Israel, Amoro too needed containers full of spore-infused compost from the Netherlands. When — unlike Israeli companies — Amoro’s containers were held up at Ashdod Port for up to 82 days at a time without explanation, and the friends had to pay around $240 for each day of that delay, they were forced to shutter operations in mid-2016. The port did not respond to a request for comment. But now, the first Palestinian mushroom farm is rising again after drawing $17,000 through crowdfunding.

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A member of the Adala Foundation, a Syrian NGO, inspects mushroom crops at a makeshift cultivation center in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, in August 2017.

Source ABDULLAH HAMMAM/AFP/Getty

Amoro is joining a growing number of organizations across the Middle East and Africa that are cultivating mushrooms as a form of economic empowerment and resistance. Since October 2015, nonprofit organization Ghiras Al-Nahda has been growing oyster mushrooms to feed Syrians living under siege. They’ve been forced to halt operations because of the recent escalation of violence by Russia and the Syrian regime in Eastern Ghouta that has killed more than 1,000 people, according to Doctors Without Borders, but are keen to restart once the bombings ebb. In Ghana, the EU-funded PROMUSH project is expected to employ up to 5,500 residents of Adentan municipality in a massive mushroom operation by 2020. And in Zimbabwe, Chido Govera — who learned how to grow oyster mushrooms as a means of survival after she was orphaned at age 7 — is now training future mushroom farmers across her country, and from as far away as Ghana and Mongolia.

“I set out to simply find the art of cultivating mushrooms so I can teach that to people who needed that like me,” says Govera.

There’s a growing market out there for farmers. In their report Middle East and Africa Edible Mushroom Market Outlook 2021, Market Data Forecast estimates the region’s edible mushroom market will grow from $3.05 billion in 2016 to $4.66 billion by 2021. And that doesn’t account for nonprofit organizations like Ghiras Al-Nahda.

This is a dream. If you don’t want to achieve your dreams, then wake up.

Mahmoud Kuhail, Amoro

For the organization’s CEO Ghiath Zeen and the band of friends who run it with him, the “market” that matters is in any case very specific. They started in 2001 by distributing food and toys to poor families. After the revolution started in 2011, they switched to medical supplies. “We were the most dangerous team for the Syrian government in 2012 and 2013,” says Zeen. “They consider volunteers, the youth, especially those working in medicine, more dangerous even than those with guns.” Several members of their team disappeared, were executed or were forced to flee. In April 2014, the group moved to Gaziantep in Turkey and officially registered their NGO that September. Then, after the Syrian regime barricaded the agricultural area of Eastern Ghouta — leaving its 2.5 million residents to starve — in October 2015, Ghiras Al-Nahda turned their attention to mushrooms. OZY was unable to reach the Syrian government for comment.

Their recent CanDo crowdfunding campaign (which raised nearly $21,000) recalls how a local man named Ahmad “had seen some mushrooms randomly growing in the area” and remembered an old Syrian expression, “mushrooms are a poor man’s meat.” Zeen says researchers at what is now the Nwat Center for Scientific Studies in Damascus subsequently developed and distributed mushroom-growing kits, providing sustenance to 1,200 people. At the end of January 2018, the NGO updated the campaign, saying they successfully used the funds to teach an additional 160 people how to grow mushrooms in the sunless basements of their own homes, providing “people with food with high protein value in the most dangerous place to live in the world.”

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Palestinian microbiology students from Gaza’s al-Azhar University grow oyster mushrooms at one of their houses in the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City in November 2017.

Source MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty

Amid the devastation now in Eastern Ghouta, mushrooms are the last thing on anyone’s minds. But if any semblance of sanity is restored, Zeen hopes the work will continue — and history suggests it might. In a November 2017 article titled “Famine Food of Vegetal Origin Consumed in the Netherlands During World War II,” Dutch researchers described how the devastating Dutch famine compelled residents to collect foods they didn’t normally eat — including wild mushrooms. The study concluded that, 71 years later, “the once crucial knowledge on wild edible plants and famine food sources is still present among elder Dutch citizens.” Still, as Amoro’s Kuhail notes, it takes years to establish a consistent and reliable mushroom supply, which is why, for now, they import their compost from Dutch Trading Office BV.

Down in Zimbabwe, Govera demonstrates how time and dedication eventually pay off. An orphan, she left school at 9 to support her younger brother and elderly grandmother. Then, at 11, she joined a ZERI Foundation program that taught her how to cultivate oysters, which she’s been doing ever since — and not only for herself. Through the Future of Hope Foundation she founded in 2013, 32-year-old Govera trained 525 Zimbabwean mushroom farmers just in 2017, and also trains Ghanaian and Mongolian farmers. By the end of 2019, she hopes the more than 40 local communities involved with her program will each produce 1.5 tons of mushrooms.

As for Amoro, Kuhail says they have $600,000 in assets and loans to pay off, so they’re neither out of the game nor out of the woods yet. Working through an anonymous Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, they have established a new business arm that can operate legally within Israel and, they hope, make it easier to work with the port. The pressure is high, but the farmers are up for it.

“This is a dream,” says Kuhail. “If you don’t want to achieve your dreams, then wake up.”

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