In semi-arid Chivi and Mwenezi districts of Zimbabwe livelihoods are precarious. Most families depend on production of maize, sorghum and millet as well as cash crops, cotton and groundnuts but often harvests are inadequate. Opportunities for earning cash to buy food include local casual work, seasonal farm work for better-off households, farm work on plantations and estates, and temporary or permanent jobs in the mines in the area, or towns within Zimbabwe and South Africa. A number of rivers provide irrigation, gold panning and some fishing opportunities. Nonetheless, this is an area of chronic poverty and food insecurity.

However locals now realise that they have an unrecognised asset in the form of the abundant of marula trees (Sclerocarya birrea – mupfura, umganu) which flourish in the driest, remotest and least agriculturally productive areas of Zimbabwe. Wherever they grow, marula trees are venerated and conserved by local people for their abundant and reliable harvest of edible fruits.

BioInnovation Zimbabwe (BIZ) has been partnering with women in Chivi and Mwenezi since 2012, helping them to add value to the fruits and find markets for their products. The women receive training on how to collect the fruit, decorticate the nut, extract marula oil and produce marula nut butter.

Vongai (39) from ward 16 in Chivi district was one of the first to join the project. She explains: “I wake up early to pick freshly fallen fruit, probably all from one tree. Once home, I remove the yellow skin and squeeze the juice into a container, separating out the nuts. Sometimes when I mean business I use a mortar and pestle to pound the fruit. The juice makes a delicious drink for my family. If I leave it for more than a day, it becomes beer, which I use to pay hired labour or I sell it to get a few dollars. I spread out the clean nuts just behind my hut and leave them to dry for about four weeks. I then place my two rocks on a clean sack, sit on my grass mat and crack the nuts patiently plucking out the kernels. A day’s work of cracking gives me enough money for at least two meals for my whole family; I’m proud to be such a business woman.” Vongai’s life changed for the better when she began cracking nuts from the local marula trees and selling kernels. She manages to pay school fees and buy books for her three children. She also bought three goats, blankets, kitchen pots and even built a better house with zinc roofing.

Nelia (58), from Marinda Village, Mwenezi district, used to grow vegetables, but never had enough income to buy food for her 5 grandchildren. In 2014, she started selling marula kernels. With the money she can now buy food, pay for school fees and even shoes and school uniforms. “BIZ taught us to put value in marula kernels that we thought were valueless. We are a resettled family and we did not enjoy homemade marula butter much and we had a hard time surviving on it. Now we can sell kernels and buy our favourite peanut butter! ”

The market for Marula nuts is large. The oil, extracted from the kernels, has good export potential and there is growing demand for the oil locally. The oil is extraordinarily stable, containing a large proportion of mono-unsaturated fatty acids, vitamin C and E, and natural antioxidants. It is an excellent salad/cooking oil. Marula oil absorbs quickly and is highly moisturising thus making it ideal for use in cosmetic products. It has tremendous skin hydration and anti-aging benefits.

BIZ is currently selling about 16 tonnes of kernels to local oil producers and the local food market at present needs about 1 tonne for a good year’s supply.

The best opportunity on the local market lies in the food industry. The fruit pulp, rich in vitamin C, can be made into nuggets, fruit rolls, sticks, jams and jellies. Marula juice could be a raw material for the beverage and confectionary industry. Marula kernels have a higher protein and oil content than most other popular nuts (walnut, hazelnut, chestnut and almond). They are also rich in magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. The nuts can be eaten like any other nut, raw or roasted, as a snack, sprinkled in mueslis, on ice-creams and salads, to replace other nuts in your baking or made into nut butter (substitute for peanut butter).

Forget pecan pie; bake a marula nut pie! Check out our Marula nut pie recipe.


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Caroline Jacquet
Caroline Jacquet, though not indigenous to Zimbabwe, considers herself naturalised. She studied Forestry and Natural Resources Management in Leuven, Belgium and arrived in Zimbabwe in 2002, to work for the World Agroforestry Centre. She’s since worked for the Zimbabwe Adding Value to Sustainable Agriculture Produce (ZAVSAP) network and KAITE and is the Project Manager at Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe (BIZ) since 2013. BIZ researches mostly indigenous plants for their commercial potential. If she had to tag her work experience and interests, she’d say: plants, conservation, sustainable use, income-generation, value-addition, small-scale producers, local foods. She’s been organising yearly traditional food festivals since 2010, first with ZAVSAP and since 2013 with the Zimbabwe Traditional and Organic Food Forum. When not busy with natural (food) products, Caroline likes to read her Kindle in the sun and walk her dogs (and husband) in the Christon Bank hills.