For more than a century the marula fruit has been traditionally harvested by local communities living in the north-central parts of Namibia, where the marula tree is an abundant natural resource. Although the fruit looks more like a food source than a high-value ingredient for overseas cosmetic products, the marula’s real secret is locked away inside it. The key to opening this secret is rooted deep in tradition, reports Willem Snyman, journalist at NBC Radio News.
Shortly after Namibia’s independence in 1990, what was then known as the Department of Woman Affairs investigated what women in the north-central regions of Namibia wanted to do in terms of training, development and income-generating opportunities so as to generate an income. Women in forty villages were invited to identify project ideas, all of which included using the marula in some way or form for development purposes.
Subsequently, when today’s Ministry of Woman Affairs and Child Welfare came into contact with the Centre for Research and Information in Africa, Southern African Development and Consulting, (CRIAA SA-DC), this non-governmental organisation was tasked to investigate the possibility of turning the marula fruit into a viable economic product. First of all though, the NGO had to determine exactly what the marula fruit could be used for.
For generations, women in the Oshana, Ohangwena, Omusati and Oshikoto regions of north-central Namibia have been using it as a source of food as well as for its cosmetic properties. Inside the fruit is a large nut, which reveals two to four locules. When broken open, each contains an oil-rich kernel. With a skill handed down from generation to generation, rural women are able to remove these small kernels and squeeze out the oil. This they then use either as an ingredient to complement the taste and texture of traditional chicken and mahango dishes, or as a moisturiser on their skin.
Cyril Lombard, co-ordinator of the Trial Marula Oil Production Project for CRIAA SA-DC, explains that the kernels containing the oil take up to four months to spoil once removed from the nut. This, he says, provides ample opportunity to handle the kernels and deliver them to processing facilities, given the necessary quality control. It was for this reason, along with the oil’s moisturising effects, that CRIAA SA-DC decided to investigate using marula oil as a potentially viable income-generating opportunity for rural woman.
However, following the official launch of the Trial Marula Oil Production Project in 1996, it took four years to establish the viability of marula oil as a cosmetic product. To set up the necessary development infrastructure, CRIAA SA-DC had to develop the technology, look at quality-control issues, do extensive analyses of the oil, and negotiate with people in the high-value cosmetic and food supplement markets.
Marula harvesting and processing is carried out exclusively by women. This highlighted the need for women in the region to work together to make the Trial Marula Oil Production Project economically viable. Thus the Eudafano (meaning loosely “we work together”) Women’s Co-operative was established, based on village associations in twelve areas of north-central Namibia, to process oil from marula kernels at the Katutura Artisans’ Project under an agreement between CRIAA SA -DC and Eudafano Women’s Co-operative. Here a specially designed hydraulic press produces the unrefined marula oil, which is then sold to a company in the United Kingdom in 25- or 210-litre drums that are shipped via Walvis Bay Harbour to the UK. Here the crude oil is refined and sold to cosmetic companies for inclusion as an ingredient in a variety of beauty products.
Freshly processed marula oil has a pleasantly light nutty smell and pale yellow-orange colour. Once refined, however, the oil becomes lighter. When the crude oil is refined, the so-called ‘red units’ and other unacceptable elements such as free fatty acids and undesirable odours in the oil are removed.
Marula oil contains antioxidants, is stable and mixes well with other cosmetic ingredients without negative reactions. This, as well as other features of the oil, make it usable in this niche market. Namibia is the first country in the world to market marula oil for the manufacturing of high-value or special cosmetic products.
The process whereby women remove the oil-rich kernels from the locules inside the marula nut is called “decortication”. This is done during the dry season between June and September, after the marula fruits have dropped from the trees between January and May in the wet season. Marula nuts have the added advantage that they can be decorticated for up to a year after the fruit’s fleshy cover is eaten or has rotted away – as long as the nut remains intact.
The decortication process is highly labour intensive and requires a great deal of time. This is one of the beauties of the project, namely that decortication can be done at household level, allowing an income to be generated by people with no other source of income.
Is there any training involved? Surprisingly little in terms of harvesting and decortication, since harvesting and utilising the marula fruit is part of a woman’s traditional knowledge. There is, however, more training involved in other sectors of the project, such as bookkeeping training for the Eudafano Women’s Co-operative, which is an ongoing process.
Here CRIAA SA-DC has support from the Division of Co-operative Development in the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Rural Development. An estimated 2 500 woman are currently involved in the harvesting and processing of the marula kernel. It is hoped to increase this figure to 5 000 in future.
The Trial Marula Oil Production Project has just completed its first full year of export, which included the processing of 20 000 kg of the oil-rich marula kernel. Surplus production of marula oil is available locally.
The objective ultimately is to develop marula oil production in Namibia into a reliable, long-term industry. With this in mind, CRIAA SA-DC and the Eudafano Woman’s Co-operative established the Southern African Marula Oil Producers’ Network in an effort to collaborate rather than compete with each other, and jointly look into issues of marula oil quality control and the oil production capacity.
Thus far the network includes Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, although there is also interest from other potential producers, including Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.
This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.