A FREE State businessman and his wife have launched an ambitious plan to help black farmers enter the lucrative retail market by giving them free training.
The couple is Taiwanese-born Andy and Cathy Weng, who run a highly successful exotic mushroom-farming business in the Free State town of Ladybrand, 15km from the Lesotho border.
They supply a variety of mushrooms such as King Oysters and pink mushrooms to various retail chains nationwide through a network of farmers who were trained by them.
Weng says the traditional farming method used to produce mushrooms requires a capital outlay of less than R10000, which makes it appealing.
Once training has occurred, often taking less than six months, the farmers are ready to produce mushrooms and supply the market, says Weng.
He says he and Cathy provide training support to the farmers throughout the incubation period until they are ready to do business.
Weng says all a prospective farmer needs is a building the size of a double garage or ground the same size to erect a structure to start farming.
Once the structure is ready, the Wengs inspect the premises to ensure they meet the requirements. If not, they make recommendations.
To start operating, budding farmers then order shoots from the couple at R9 a unit, from which mushrooms germinate over three to five days.
Weng says each farmer stands to make a nett profit of at least R15000 a month in the early stages and this often grows to R22000 in a short time.
There are no royalty fees.
As part of their scheme to introduce blacks into the mushroom market, the Wengs have set up two pilot projects in the Free State towns of Clocolan and Thaba Nchu, where the couple is training locals at two charity organisations to produce mushrooms.
In Clocolan, east of Bloemfontein, Anicia and Daniel Makhubo have started producing and selling mushrooms from the back yard of the Bethel Haven Orphanage, which they run.
Thanks to the mushroom business they no longer depend solely on handouts to feed their 21 orphans.
"With contributions drying out, this project has brought new hope for the orphanage," Daniel Makhubo says.
"Some community members involved in the project expect money to roll in immediately. This is the only problem we have as we go through the learning phase."
The mushroom project has already created a buzz in Thaba Nchu.
The couple's efforts are channelled through the local branch of the Mangaung Society for the Care of the Aged, which is rolling out the project in the neighbouring villages.
Co-ordinating the pilot scheme at the non-profit organisation are Rosina Letsoalo, Neo Mokawane and Jackie Lingalo, who say local communities have taken to exotic mushrooms like wildfire.
"Many villagers have greeted the project with much enthusiasm because it empowers them with new farming skills," says Mokawane.
Ms Lingalo says local villagers are buying mushrooms from the project.
"They say they now replace meat with King Oyster mushrooms, because it is delicious - it tastes like meat or tripe, like mogodu," says Lingalo.