The marama, also known as marama or morama in Tswana, maramama in Thonga, tsi-tsin in !Kung, gami in Khoi and ozombanui in the Herero language, is a high-value plant from the Namibian Kalahari agro-ecological region. It is a perennial species, producing a prostrate vine with numerous prostrate stems of up to three metres long, which spread from an enormous underground woody tuber. The tubers have reddish-brown bark and usually taper to a thinner neck-like structure near the soil surface, from where the annual branches grow during the rainy season.
The plant occurs in the deep sandy regions of eastern, central tropical and southern Africa. In its natural habitat, the marama bean takes between eight to 21 days to germinate on wet soils. It then grows vegetatively for the next five to six months. During this time a tuber develops underground, which remains there until the start of the next rainy season, when the new runners sprout from the tuber. Yellow flowers are produced after one to four months of vegetative growth. They are pollinated by a solitary carpenter bee, and the first pods with seed will set. Thereafter, the runners will die back with the onset of the dry winter months and re-sprout again as the cycle repeats itself perennially. Plants take between 18 to 24 months to reach reproduction maturity.
The nutritional and economic importance of the plant has been known for a long time. For millennia this perennial creeping leguminous plant has been widely used by the Khoisan and Bantu people. It was introduced to the literature by Burchell in 1824. Today it has significant potential for addressing the problem of malnutrition and hunger in Namibia and the region. Research into improving its productivity and nutritional composition, as well as various new product applications are being undertaken by various parties including the University of Namibia.
The primary agronomic potential of the marama is based on the high nutritional value of its seeds. The marama bean is an excellent source of good quality protein, from 29% to 39%, and has an oil content ranging from 24% to 48%. The protein content of the seed is comparable to or even slightly higher than that of soya beans. The oil content is twice that of soya beans, approaching that of peanuts. The young tubers also contain protein and are more nutritious than potatoes and yams. Marama is also a good source of micronutrients such as calcium, iron, zinc, phosphate, potassium, magnesium, and B vitamins.