Srinagar, Kashmir, INDIA (WOMENSENEWS)--From her home in the Kashmir Valley, Naseema Bano cultivates button mushrooms in trays to sell at the local market.
"It is profitable, and people have started purchasing," Bano says.
Mushrooms are creating a substantial profit for the valley's women, who have not had much financial freedom but can now contribute to their families.
Women here say that strict gender roles hinder their economic opportunities and the region's economic development. The female work participation rate is just 25.6 percent nationally and 22.5 percent in the state of Kashmir and Jammu, according to India's most recent census in 2001.
To reduce unemployment and empower women, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology-Kashmir, SKUAST-K, created two model "mushroom villages" in 2009 and 2010 in the northeastern districts of Baramulla and Budgam.
Nazir Ahmad Munshi, senior scientist at SKUAST-K's Mushroom Research and Training Center, says the program offers trainings to women first at the university, then at demonstration centers in their villages and finally at their individual homes. Later, they give them materials to start production.
So far, 136 women are producing mushrooms in their homes in Budgam village and 65 women are producing mushrooms in Baramulla village to sell at local markets.
"After acquiring training from the center, I've set up my own unit," grower Haleema Begum says. "I don't have to work hard as it is an easy task and I have engaged my family members as well."
A Feasible Business
SKUAST-K's Munshi says it's a feasible business.
"Being a home-based unit, women prefer mushroom production," Munshi says. "Besides, raw material required for mushroom compost that is important for mushroom production is locally available, like paddy and wheat straw, chicken manure and horse dung. We even train our trainees on how autumn fallen leaves, like apple and chinar, can be used as compost for mushroom production."
Munshi says the Horticulture Technology Mission, a government-funded mission to promote socio-economic development in India's northeastern region, provides the women with free spawn, or seeds.
He says production is also easy to sustain.
"Production technology is simple," Munshi says. "It is not dependent on power and is [an] employment-generating unit."
On top of that, Munshi says profits are significant.
For a minimum of 200 trays or 500 bags, a grower can earn $220 a month, he says. One grower earned almost $3,400 last year and some have been able to market their produce in New Delhi, India's capital.
Munshi says mushroom demand is high because many mushrooms in the state are wild and inedible. Mushrooms also have cosmetic uses -- in creams -- and pharmaceutical uses.
"Its protein value lies between meat and vegetable," he says. "Diabetic patient[s] can take it as it is [a] low-caloric food vegetable. Eighty percent of it is water."
But Munshi says it's hard for growers to market their mushrooms because they are women. To help, the university arranges load carriers to take their produce to the markets.
The university also aims to provide mini-canning units, which process mushrooms, in the villages. Munshi says that the villages should also have mushroom houses or farms, since a lack of space is another problem.
"Space in their respective homes isn't easily provided by the families to women for this purpose," says one grower, Shaista Bano, who is not related to Naseema Bano.
She says that women also face financial constraints because of their gender.
"Families aren't encouraging, and it is difficult for us to avail loan facilities," she says. "Parents don't encourage their girls for setting up businesses."
Shaista Bano says the government should assist them financially.
The Centre for Environment and Education Himalaya, a nongovernmental organization, has also set up a mushroom cultivation program for women.
"People here didn't know that mushrooms could be cultivated and consumed," says Mubashir Ahmad, a Centre for Environment and Education Himalaya coordinator. "We got spawn from SKUAST-K and offered it to our beneficiaries."
SKUAST-K aims to set up five more mushroom villages across the valley by the end of this year. Munshi says the program plans to focus on dhingri mushrooms more than button mushrooms because they offer more crops annually, don't require compost and have a longer shelf life because they can be dried.
Munshi says that if the growers can raise their prices and maintain the proper temperature during the winter -- so mushrooms can be cultivated year-round -- Kashmir could compete with China in mushroom production.
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Afsana Bhat joined Global Press Institute in 2010. She reports on environmental and human rights issues in Kashmir.