The Marula – Africa’s ‘Treasure Tree’
A source of human nutrition in Africa for over 12,000 years, marula fruit is now famous as the source of one of South Africa’s most successful exports, a liqueur known as “Amarula Cream”. But the range of Marula products is increasing and during the last four years, the development of a range of skincare products based on marula pip oil has shown the extensive market potential of this indigenous African fruit. Until now the marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) has only grown in the wild but, after twenty-five years of research, nine named marula cultivars have been identified.
Few African trees are held in such high esteem by indigenous peoples as the majestic marula for the multitude of uses in terms of diet and culture. The tree occurs in the wooded savannah of southern Africa and the Sudano-Sahelian range of West Africa. People collect large quantities of ripe fruits, with different cultural groups having a variety of uses for them. Making jam and alcohol seems to be common to virtually all local peoples and various parts, including the bark, are used for medicinal purposes. Fruit gathered from wild trees are also sold to local processors for producing a wide range of food and cosmetic products providing an important source of income for local people. However, fruit quality and quantity vary from tree to tree and year to year, so identifying productive and reliable plants has been an ongoing research priority.
When a team from the University of Pretoria began work on ‘ennobling’ the marula in 1980, commercial products such as the Amarula liqueur, were quick to emerge, to be followed by other food products, such as fruit juice, nuts and jelly. Marula pips, at first an ignored by-product of the fruit pulp extraction process, were subsequently recognised for containing a valuable oil. Odourless and tasteless, but rich in antioxidants and oleic acid, marula pip oil is reputedly 48 times more stable than the best olive oil, and therefore ideal for the perfume industry. Extracted using carbon dioxide under high pressure, the oil is now a central ingredient of over twenty hypoallergenic skin and hair care products, manufactured in South Africa by Limpopo Marula Products. The ‘Marula Gold’ range includes soaps, shampoos, skin creams, deodorants and mosquito repellent.
The range of marula-based food products is also rising. The flesh of the ripened yellow fruit has a strong flavour and contains up to four times as much Vitamin C as citrus fruit. A factory in Polokwane, capital of Limpopo province, produces fruit juice and juice concentrates. The walnut-sized kernel is also extremely nutritious. High in energy, protein (28.3 per cent), and minerals (especially magnesium, iron, copper, zinc and phosphorus) marula kernels have been traditionally used as an emergency food source. Promagold, a company established by local entrepreneur Shirley Potgieter to promote the Marula Gold range, markets marula chocolates, chutneys, nut mixes and rusks. Whole nuts are also in demand, with a recent order from Scandinavia for 30 tonnes.
The identification of the nine lines, specially selected for the qualities of their flesh and stones, will help to ensure that the supply of pips and fruit pulp can match the growing demand for marula products. Currently, some 6,000 collectors gather fruit for the production of Amarula liqueur. For collectors, many of whom live on the edge of the Kruger National Park, it can be a vital source of income, with earnings of up to US$70 per tree. This potential has been recognised by the Limpopo provincial government, which has established a three-month long marula festival during harvesting season (January to March). Distel, manufacturers of Amarula, have sponsored a booklet about marula, and the provincial government has also established a marula nursery which aims to distribute 5 million trees for planting in homesteads, as part of a reforestation programme.
The marketing of the skincare and food products is still in its early stages but is starting to gain momentum in a range of local stores in the region. Meanwhile, research continues in a variety of directions, including the development of a nut cracking machine, extraction of a preservative found in marula oil, investigating the 153 flavourings found in marula peel, and further development of the oil for the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.
With contributions from Dermot Cassidy
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Credits for Feature Image: www.afribeautycollective.com
Marula Production Guidelines
The marula tree is a prolific seed bearer and matured fruit falls when still green and turns yellow on the ground. Marula is very easy to grow from seeds, provided these are treated in the right way. Seed should be collected from fallen, ripened fruit and be soaked overnight in warm water before sowing. After soaking, place the seeds on damp, fluffy peat moss at room temperature for about a week or two. This softens the plugs found at the broad end—usually two per seed, sometimes one. The broad end should carefully be pared down with secateurs until the outline of the plug is visible.
Marula nuts are growing SA’s rural entrepreneurs in a win-win partnership with scientists and conservationists
Among the many indigenous drought-tolerant trees, Marula, Sclerocarya birrea subsp caffra, stands out. It is an abundant multipurpose tree, growing wild from Senegal and South Sudan in the north to northern Namibia and northern KwaZulu Natal in the south.
Virtually all parts of the tree has been utilised in some way. Animals eat the leaves and fruit. Bark is often used for medicinal purposes and its wood can be used for making drums. Marula is a prolific bearer. While the average fruit volumes per tree are just below half a ton, fruit fall of 1 to 3 tons below massive marula trees have been reported in just one season.
The Management, Use and Commercialisation of Marula: Policy Issues
Marula (Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra) forms an integral part of the diet, tradition and culture of rural communities in southern Africa. It also comprises the basis of various commercial enterprises which operate both endogenously – where the trade of marula products takes place at a local level by households to supplement other livelihood activities – and exogenously – where a more formal and ‘externally driven’ commercialisation process occurs.
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