Posted November 1999
|Special: Empowering the rural disabled in Asia and the Pacific|
Thailand: Mushroom training for disabled people
Disabled trainee in Thailand
The Mushroom Training project is aimed at establishing a training programme on mushroom production for disabled people; the project is housed at the Vocational Training Centre in Ubon Ratchathani, Eastern Thailand.
The first group of 28 disabled trainees received two months of training at the Centre. Trainees were very enthusiastic and committed to learning and utilizing their knowledge and skills for mushroom production as a principal source of income. After the completion of the training in mid-October 1999, 10 of the disabled trainee graduates started their own mushroom production operations in their villages, while 14 former trainees returned to the Centre at their own initiative in order to to produce spawn bags in preparation for mushroom production at their own farm households.
The second two-month training programme for an additional 28 disabled trainees will start in January 2000 and, thereafter, the training programme is expected to continue and expand into other regions under Government ownership.
The project enjoys the strong support of and commitment by the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare of the Thai Government. The dedication of project experts and counterpart staff, in addition to strong backstopping support provided by the FAO Regional Office in Bangkok, are additional factors which have contributed to the successful progress of the training programme.
The project, with the strong support of the DPW, is now in the process of establishing sustainable mechanisms and institutional arrangements which will allow the trained disabled mushroom growers to gain sustainable economic returns and to achieve full Government ownership for continuation without external assistance. The project envisions an expansion of activities following trainee graduation. A self-help disabled mushroom producers group will be established to manage and maintain mushroom production houses at the Centre. This activity would be made possible under a self-financed autonomous arrangement which would contribute to future mushroom training by disabled trainers for disabled people.
Chief, Operations Branch
FAO Regional Office for Asia and The Pacific
The Mushroom Training for Disabled People project is organized jointly through FAO, Thailand's Department of Public Welfare (Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare) and the Northeastern Rehabilitation Center of the Disabled Persons in Ubon Ratchathani (Thailand) which serves as the programme's training site. The objective of the programme is to train disabled people in Thailand in the cultivation of mushrooms, with the eventual aim of encouraging programme trainees to utilize their new skills to open their own mushroom farms following completion of the programme.
In April 1999, representatives of FAO, the Thai Department of Public Welfare and the Head of the Sub-District, met to discuss plans for the pilot project and the timetable to prepare the Rehabilitation Center for its first group of trainees. Discussions included the selection criteria of trainees. It was recommended that trainees entering into the programme already have an idea of the location for their mushroom production, either within an existing mushroom farm or their own set-up, prior to training.
Adjustments to the Rehabilitation Center were necessary before the start of the programme. No pathways existed in the cultivation area or in certain locations surrounding the site. Large concrete pathways were constructed which would allow access to wheelchairs, tricycles and cars. The Processing Building was already available and already equipped with an access ramp leading to the main concrete path. Several adjustments were needed, including a neon-lighting system necessary in cases of "low-vision" people working in the Processing Building. The Spawning Building was converted from a former meeting/staff lunch room and was already equipped with a proper access ramp. Two Incubation Buildings were required and were in the planning stages. Due to budget constraints, only one was planned to be completed for the first group of trainees. Distances around shelves were planned to allow for easy movement of trainees in wheelchairs and tricycles. Six Fruiting Body Buildings were also projected although budget constraints meant that only three were slated for completion for the first training group.
Staff requirements for running the mushroom farm were estimated at 7-10 individuals, preferably selected from the group of trainees. The objective was to eventually have the center run by the trainees, ultimately transforming the project into a self-help project which would inspire other individuals. There was also discussion surrounding strategies for replication of the project in other regions of Thailand and abroad. For this reason, each step of the project would need to be carefully monitored and analyzed for all elements of development, design and implementation.
The first group selected for training consisted of 28 individuals: 7 women and 21 men. The trainees were selected through a careful process to ensure their dedication and enthusiasm for the programme.
Nine individuals made up the selection committee; this included five trainers, three consultants and the Center's Social Worker. A team of three to four selection committee members visited each candidate at his or her home, even in the most remote areas. Candidates were asked a series of questions to understand the following points:
Following the home visit and interviews, the selection team would sit together and discuss each candidate while reviewing the criteria. Reasons for acceptance or refusal to the programme had to be clearly identified. The candidate's clear commitment to the programme had to be felt by the selection team in order to accept an individual as a trainee.
Both trainees and trainers were positive about the selection process. It was felt that the selection methodology had worked well. This was evidenced by the fact that all 28 trainees graduated from the programme which is quite unusual for special projects of this nature. The trainees showed tremendous enthusiasm for and satisfaction with the project. Both trainees and trainers felt that the participants became a true team, working together to help one another through the programme. Even those with severe disabilities knew that they could count on the help and support of their peers. Many of the participants came to the training center from far away and it was sometimes difficult to adjust to the new surroundings and to being so far away from their homes and families.
The training began with a three-day session of philisophical rehabilitation to prepare all the trainees for the work that lay ahead and to clearly understand the goals and objectives that they were expected to achieve during the two-month training period. The trainees also considered it an excellent opportunity to get to know one another and to better understand one another's aims. The students also suggested the possibility of including other participants at the Center, not only those in the mushroom training programme, in these three day sessions.
Training was rigorous. The trainee day started at 4 a.m. and the work continued until 9 p.m. It was necessary to start work early in the morning to gather all the mushrooms, weigh them and bring them to the market for sale. Trainees felt that it was difficult to follow night classes but there were no dark rooms in the compound, making it impossible to show slides during the day.
Peer teaching was a method adopted early on by the trainees. Because the group was larger than anticipated, the 28 trainees were divided into smaller groups with varying levels of disabilities. In this way, the trainees could help those who had more difficulties. When a trainee had difficulties, trainees would call upon others to share, discuss and try to better understand the situation. For a specific problem, trainees would sit together to find a solution, under the guidance of the trainers.
Many of the guest speakers' presentations took place on Saturdays and Sundays. These were an important component of the programmes since trainers, although having been trained in mushroom cultivation, were not experts in the field. However, no overtime had been planned for trainers, so they were not present during guest speakers' presentations. Since the officers and trainers do not work during the weekends, special arrangements had to be made so that the trainees could continue to work and have access to the mushroom houses and the car in order to sell the collected mushrooms in the markets.
Trainees were asked to express their opinions on a variety of issues concerning the training programme and its strengths and weaknesses. The trainees were satisfied with the programme and voiced their opinion that other groups should be given the same opportunity for similar training. The initial three days of social and moral orientation were also viewed positively by participants who felt that it allowed the group to become closer during the initial phase of the programme. It was suggested that the inclusion of other Center workers in those initial sessions would be beneficial to the programme as a whole.
Citing achievements and activities which they enjoyed most, trainees mentioned the sense of accomplishment in doing things by themselves and in being expected to be capable of doing everything that they were taught. This was a powerful motivating factor. In addition, they cited developing friendships with the other trainees which was described as a "new family" and an important source of support for the future. According to the trainees, the largest difficulty faced was meeting the challenges of a tiring and demanding training schedule. The level of difficulty in handling the daily tasks varied among individuals. For instance, innoculating the bags was more difficult for one participant with only one arm while a blind trainee could not easily check the water levels in the pasteurization chamber. Two mentally-disabled sisters required additional assistance and time in which to learn. The participants faced these challenges by working together in teams and assisting those who had more difficulties. The trainees agreed that they had learned a great deal about cultivating mushrooms and how to search for markets for their product, how to bargain prices, how to sell the mushrooms and to evaluate the competition.
Problems specific to the training center cited by the trainees included some complaints about the accomodation facilities (participants noted that they were able to make the necessary repairs themselves), insufficient food for the level of physical activity required for the long daily training ( 4 a.m.- 9 p.m.) and food which did not take into consideration certain regional diets. There seemed to be a lack of understanding within the Center about the programme which led to some difficulties if the trainees did not participate in Center-organized activities. Participants who worked late were too tired to participate in morning exercises, yet they were sometimes punished for their absence at those sessions. The participants also felt that two months was too short for the training programme and suggested that the training schedule be extended to three months in the future.
Another problem cited was the lack of communication between officers at the Center and the Mushroom Training programme. The general feeling was that the officers were not prepared for the introduction of this programme at the Center and did not understand its purpose or how the programme differed from regular, on-going programmes. Since the Mushroom programme was so much shorter and more intensive than the regular Center-organized programmes, it was believed that it required a particular understanding among officers (e.g., because of the intensive, 2-month schedule and long days, participants were unable to participate in Center-organized activities or exercise programmes.)
Trainers had various backgrounds and levels of experience, including expertise in the areas of land settlements and land management, sericulture, agricultural communications, education, and public welfare. All trainers participated in mushroom cultivation training. Among the aspects of the programme they most enjoyed, trainers cited working and forming friendships with the other trainers, working on an FAO project with FAO staff, selecting trainees at their homes and harvesting mushrooms as proof of a successful project.
Included among the list of difficulties were misunderstanding with the officers of the center which were attributed mostly to administrative matters. It was recommended that the officers and administrators of the Center be more aware of the Mushroom Training project, perhaps this could be acheieved by encouraging more of them sit in on project meetings. It was noted, however, that officers were always invited to special meetings regarding the mushroom farm but only one sat in on the meetings; it was felt there was little interest on the part of the officers. Nevertheless, the trainers noted that some of the tensions subsided as the officers became more accustomed to the nature of the programme and realized the time constraints of a short, two-month programme when compared to the Center's longer term (1 to 2-year) programmes. A specific work plan should be drawn up to better organize the training needs (e.g., how many bags were to be made each day, the inoculation process, etc); the work plan would help to guarantee a steady purchase of the necessary materials. Major differences in the learning capabilities of the trainees was also addressed, although the trainers admitted that the trainees were able to overcome these problems themselves by supporting one another and working through difficulties together.
The trainers all felt confident to teach mushroom cultivation following the extensive training that they received in Bangkok and on site in Ubon Ratchathani. The area in which they were weak was the issue of pest and disease control. The trainers were not expected to gain expertise in these areas but to have a basic understanding of basic pest and disease control and management. The trainers expressed confidence that the trainees were ready to start their own mushroom farms, but they stressed the need for the trainees to start small and grow slowly. They also pointed out the students' desire to learn more about different species of mushrooms and suggested that, although the students technically are ready to set up their own mushroom farms, there should be more time allotted in the programme for them to learn and practice. Like the trainees, the trainers believed that any future training programmes should be lengthened to three months. Other suggestions to improve the programme included more guest speakers invited to address the trainees, a greater emphasis on training in processing and sales strategies and internships organized for the trainees at independent farms to provide them with the opportunity to work in different environments and with different facilities. Trainers, as well as trainees, felt that the selection method for the programme was an excellent opportunity to meet the trainees, their families and neighbors, to understand their motivation and to see the post-training potential (e.g., land availability, support network) for setting up a mushroom farm.
The trainees celebrated the completion of their training with a graduation ceremony on October 8, 1999. The ceremony included the awarding of certificates from the Department of Public Welfare and FAO. The trainees and their families were present for the ceremony. Trainees gave speeches on what they had learned and how it is necessary to work hard in the present in order to prepare for the future. Fifteen trainees had already received approval for a loan from the Disability Fund to set up their own mushroom farms, twelve had already started the work on their farms and two have been completed. Visits were made to farms already built by those two trainees. Trainees had built these mushroom houses during the weekends.
The first farm was built by trainee K. Suna Saoxuvan. It is 3 x 5 meters and can produce between 3000 - 4000 bags. He used 500 Baht to buy the necessary material, such as the thatch roof. Mr. Sauxovan already had some of the material, some was given to him by friends and the rest he gathered in the jungle. The farm is now ready for him to begin work and he is ready to receive the 1500-2000 mushroom bags offered to him as a start-up from the Center.
The second farm belongs to K. Suphol Noivong and is 4 x 6 meters and can produce 4000 - 5000 bags. Mr. Noivong bought the thatch roof and other components for 1300 baht. He is also ready to receive the 1500-2000 bags to start his farm. He has plety of room for possible future expansion of the farm.
Both of the set-up farms show a clear understanding and transfer of the training. Special attention was given to aeration, ventilation, lighting and humidity.
Preliminary discussions following the graduation of the first group of trainees demonstrated that the first session of the programme was quite successful. The trainees were enthusiastic about the new skills they had learned and look forward to putting their new knowledge to use in their own mushroom farms or working on the farms of others. Trainers were pleased with the progress of the class and praised the trainees' spirit of cooperation in achieving their objectives.
Initial observations do not show evidence of any difficulties with gender issues or age differentiation. Of the 28 students from the first class of trainees, 7 were women. It was observed that several women were leaders along with some of the men. Women were also believed to be much stronger than their male counterparts in marketing issues. Perhaps their familiarity with going to the market and negotiating prices for the food and home items for their family explains this difference in capabilities. Mushroom farming activities are not overly demanding physically for the women. Women appeared better organized in terms of farm management. Clearly, the issue of gender will need to be carefully monitored in the subsequent groups to understand if the situation differs among other groups of trainees.
A women's group has confirmed its interest in setting up a mushroom farm within the community. Several of the women trainees will set-up their own mushroom farms and will participate in the women's group project in the training and transfer of technology. It is recommended that this project be closely monitored.
Age differences do not appear to have had a major impact. Older participants were not automatically selected as leaders. Initial findings suggest that strength of character, rather than gender or age, emerged as the dominant factor in becoming a leader among the trainees. Clearly, these issues will have to be further monitored with future trainee groups.
One of the larger problems appears to be the tensions that exist between the officers at the Center and the Mushroom programme. This is believed to be largely due to a lack of communication and understanding. The Center is largely acting as an academic training center rather than a vocational center. Furthermore, the Center is not specifically involved in agro-industries and does not understand the time and commitment required to cultivate the mushrooms. Some of the trainees mentioned that they felt uncomfortable in the presence of officers trying to pressure them into doing things in a certain way rather than encouraging trainees to develop their own, personal ways of achieving their objectives and applying the techniques that they have learned.
This inability to allow trainees to think for themselves may be connected to the fact that many officers work with mentally-disabled people. Nevertheless, this approach is counterproductive for the goals this programme hopes to achieve. People should always be allowed to show their capabilities before their disabilities. It would be preferable that officers not be directly involved in the management of the mushroom farm during future training sessions.
It has been suggested that an "Extension Manual" be developed to explain the basic steps for setting up a mushroom farm; instructions for building a mushroom house, the various types of materials which can be used, how to prepare, what needs to be done, farm management and marketing stratetegies should all be among the manual's topics. Possibilities for funding in order to create this handbook should be explored with local or international organizations.
Carrying out a specific economic impact study was also recommended.This should be conducted to evaluate the realistic and minimal quantity of mushroom bags needed for a mushroom farm to be sustainable. This may be done during the second training session. Marketing strategies were addressed in the first session but it is felt that more of an emphasis should be placed on marketing. Most of the trainees felt confident that they are able to market their product successfully with the level of training received. However, this may be due to the fact that most trainees live in remote communities where they all go to the same market and have already formed personal relationships with potential buyers and sellers.
The second group will be unable to start its training before January since it is now time for harvesting rice. Most of the disabled people go to work in the rice fields. The harvest season is when they earn the most income. This is especially true in Northeastern Thailand where there is only one rice harvest per year. Therefore, it is crucial that all people capable of doing so, work on the harvest that provides the bulk of their income for the entire year. This reality clearly justifies the need for programmes of this type. For up to ten months per year, many individuals have little or no income. Activities such as mushroom farming have the potential to serve as a sustainable income-generating activity throughout the year.
The mushroom farms need to be maintained between now and beginning of the next group of trainees. Therefore, it has been recommended that five to six trainees be hired to remain on the farm, cultivate the mushrooms and supply them to the markets. Room and board will be included as part of their salary and they will earn a portion of the profits from the sale of mushrooms on the market.
The success of the next training programme will depend on the ability to incorporate the recommendations for improvement of the participants, the continuing support of the government, FAO and other organizations, and the ability to find motivated trainees willing to work together as a team to learn the necessary skills and knowledge to achieve their goals of setting up a mushroom farm or working on an existing farm. As was noted in a session with the trainees, farmers with disabilities should be given the opportunity to demonstrate their skills as farmers before having to display their disabilities. By meeting around a table, it is often difficult to see the disabilities and this helps to eliminate the prejudice. Rather than noting the disabilities, observers in these sessions simply see a group of dedicated farmers discussing various marketing strategies and other related mushroom farming issues.
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