Lipid oils: Marula

Sclerocarya birrea

Lipids are fat-soluble molecules more commonly known as fats and oils. Examples of common lipids include butter, vegetable oil, cholesterol, waxes, and fat-soluble vitamins. A common characteristic of all of these compounds is that they are essentially insoluble in water but soluble in one or more organic solvents. Lipid oils should not be confused with essential oils, which are of a different chemical nature and application.

The indigenous natural oils referred to in this chapter are vegetable oils obtained from seeds of a variety of plants that are indigenous to Southern Africa. Oils that the natural product sector in Namibia has worked with include marula oil, ximenia oil and, to a lesser extent, 1Nara oil, kalahari melon seed oil, manketti oil and baobab oil.  Baobab and !Nara have a limited resource base, while manketti and kalahari melon seed oil could be produced in larger quantities, but the demand for them is currently limited. Marula and ximenia oil represent success stories in efforts to commercialise indigenous plants, because they have functional supply chains as well as an established market demand.

Namibian indigenous lipid oils are commonly marketed in international markets as cosmetic ingredients, but can be used for other purposes as well. Marula oil, in particular, is popularly used as condiment in food, and is sold in both traditional and more formalised national markets in Namibia.

Marula oil

Cold-pressed oil from the seed kernels of the marula is a valued ingredient for skincare products. It naturally softens, nourishes and revitalises the skin. It is absorbed easily and contains high levels of oleic and linoleic fatty acids, making it ideal for topical application. High in natural antioxidants and a stable oil (far more resistant to oxidation and rancidity than e.g. olive oil), marula oil has been shown to improve skin hydration and smoothness, and to reduce redness. In comparative studies it has performed better than sweet almond oil for each of these properties.

The marula tree is widely distributed in sub-Saharan tropical Africa. Subspecies caffra is indigenous to Southern Africa. In Namibia this multipurpose tree is found mainly in the northern parts of the country. It has a long history of traditional use, especially in north-central Namibia. The importance of marula extends from social to cultural, economical, and nutritional aspects of people’s lives.

From the shade of the tree to the use of the empty nutshells for firewood, marula is extensively used, including for food, drinks and medicine. In north-central Namibia women are, without doubt, the custodians of the marula resource. Although marula products are appreciated by men and women alike it is the women who own the trees, gather the fruits, and produce the wine, juice and oil.

The cultural significance of marula can be seen in the numerous traditional songs, dances, rites and stories around it. In some areas the tradition of bringing marula wine to the kings and headmen at the beginning of the marula season is dying out, but the season remains a time of festivity that cannot be compared to any other time of the year. In an area where homesteads are spatially spread, it brings people together in a time of giving, sharing, and togetherness. No other natural resource in north-central Namibia has an influence on life that is comparable to that of marula.

Because marula kernels are the main ingredient for ondjove, a favourite traditional condiment oil, they were sold in informal markets in smaller quantities long before more organised commercialisation started in the late 1990s. Early work on the feasibility of producing marula oil for international markets was started in 1996 by the Centre for Research, Information and Action in Africa – Southern Africa Development and Consulting (CRIAA SA-DC) with seven pre-existing producers’ associations, which later formed the Eudafano Women’s Cooperative (EWC). The first large customer was The Body Shop International (BSI). Not only was the company interested in the properties of the cosmetic ingredient, but the story around marula oil attracted their attention as well; the marula culture, and the fact that the product was supplied by a rural cooperative consisting exclusively of women.

EWC was formally recognised as a Community Fair Trade (CFT) supplier of BSI, a status that is still in place today.

From the first feasibility study and customer interest, it took a while for trade relations to materialise. Marula oil was an unknown product on the international market, and therefore safety and efficacy had to be established, and consumer products formulated. The first marula oil consignment of one tonne was shipped to a contract refiner of BSI in the UK in October 2000, and the launch of the first BSI facial cosmetic range containing marula oil was in 2002.

In the first few years marula oil was processed by the Katutura Artisans’ Project (KAP – a processing incubation facility and R&D centre managed by CRIAA SA-DC) in Windhoek from kernels supplied by EWC. The processing technology was developed and tested by KAP/CRIAA SA-DC, and the volumes of production and sales were not substantial enough to be taken over as a successful business by the cooperative. This changed in 2004 when the first president of Namibia (Dr. Sam Nujoma). facilitated the sourcing of funds to build their own factory. The Eudafano Women’s Marula Manufacturing Pty Ltd (EWMM) in Ondangwa is a company 100% owned by the cooperative, started processing marula oil from mid- 2005.

Marula is related to the mango. It is a large, singlestemmed tree with grey, mottled bark and a wide, spreading crown, and carries male and female flowers on separate trees. It is drought resistant and most common in open woodlands. The fruit is about the size of a plum, with a leathery skin that is butter yellow when ripe. The scented, juicy white flesh clings to a hard brown stone that contains two or three oilrich seeds (kernels). The generic name Sclerocarya is derived from two Greek words, skleros and karyon, meaning ‘hard’ and ‘nut’, respectively, and refers to the hard stone of the fruit.

The north-central regions of Namibia – Ohangwena, Oshana, Omusati, and Oshikoto – are, by far, the most important marula-producing areas in the country, with regard to both resource availability and traditional use. However, marula is not equally distributed in these regions. It tends to be clustered in slightly higher-lying areas where it is not flooded by rising water levels in the oshanas or impeded by hard pans in the soil, but does not do very well in the highest areas or other places where the soil is too saline or dry. The resource is particularly abundant in the Cuvelai drainage system, an inland delta that is dry for most of the year, but is fed by rains falling locally and in Angola during the summer months. The elevated strips of land between the waterways have the best soils, and it is here where marula thrives. In addition, because of its better soils, the Cuvelai delta is more densely populated, and because of the intense traditional use of the tree, there is a strong positive correlation between human settlements and the distribution of the marula resource. Marula tends to grow where people live, possibly because fruit are discarded there, and the seeds in turn germinate and grow.

Marula trees are owned and typically grow on peoples’ properties, rather than in open communal land. In 2010 a resource survey done by CRIAA SA-DC assessed the availability of marula fruit in the northcentral Regions of Namibia. Ninety-four per cent of the 2,494 farms surveyed had at least one marula tree, with an average of 5.3 mature female (that is fruiting) marula trees per farm. The average population of the male marula trees on the surveyed farms was 1.4, making the male:female ratio 1:3.8. The number of young and old trees was consistent over all areas, with an average of 1.3 young trees per farm, and 0.14 trees that were too old to fruit. Young trees were defined as trees that were close to maturity, but not (yet) fruiting, so it was unknown whether they were male or female trees. Small marula trees that are young enough to be eaten by goats or to be destroyed otherwise were not counted. With almost ten times more young trees than old and dying trees, the marula population seems sustainable, which is consistent with peoples’ perceptions of the resource.

The survey concluded that the marula resource base in the north-central regions was more than sufficient to exploit more commercial opportunities, provided issues of logistics, price and fruit quality could be adequately dealt with. Taking into consideration household use of marula and its products, it was estimated that, in principle, people would be willing and able to sell:

  • 570 to 940 tonnes of fruit in the EWC associations directly surrounding the factory;
  • 8,000 to 13,500 tonnes of fruit in the 10,000 households surrounding the factory;
  • 85,000 to 141,000 tonnes of fruit in the marula producing areas in north-central Namibia.

There is no immediate need for marula resource management plans for a number of reasons:

  • The marula tree is protected by traditional and national laws for example marula trees may not be cut down;
  • The harvesting of marula is non-destructive – the fruits are harvested from the ground;
  • Due to the extensive use of marula around peoples’ homesteads, there is a healthy population of marula seedlings;
  • Commercialisation seems to have a positive effect on the resource. With the increased value of the tree and its products, people are more likely to protect seedlings;
  • There is a general consensus amongst those working with marula oil that the resource base is healthy, and increasing.

In recent years there has, however, been increasing interest in capacity building regarding the propagation and cultivation of marula. Various stakeholders (EWC, CRIAA SA-DC, Directorate of Forestry, Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry (MAWF)) have collaborated to develop training and promotional material and to provide training to communities on marula grafting techniques. Grafting is interesting because it can improve both the quality and the quantity of fruit, and can therefore contribute to the long-term management of Namibia’s marula resource.

In north-central Namibia marula trees generally fruit between January and April/May, with the bulk of fruit being available in February and March. During the fruiting season women usually gather under the trees to make omaongo (marula wine). Making omaongo is a social event. Women invite their female friends and neighbours once the fruits have ripened and fallen to the ground. They gather under the tree to process the marula fruits while socialising, singing and joking. Typically, they use a cow horn to puncture the leathery skin of the fruit. The juice is squeezed out in one bucket or clay pot, and the remaining seed and flesh goes into another container. The juice is then simply left to ferment.

In most areas the fermenting juice remains with the owner of the tree, but each woman takes home some seeds with the remaining flesh and skin. Water is added to these to make oshinwa, a traditional non-alcoholic juice that is consumed mostly by children. After this, the seeds or stones are left to dry.

The marula kernels (omahuku) are extracted after the seeds have dried for a few months, during the time when people are less busy in their fields, typically from June/July until the end of the year, depending on when the rain starts. To extract the kernels, the women first cut off the ‘head’ of the nut by placing the nut on an upturned axe and hitting it with a piece of wood. They then use a flattened needle for taking out the kernels, which are then used to make the traditional condiment oil ondjove, or sold in informal markets or to EWC for the production of cold-pressed marula oil. The processing and selling of marula kernels is thus done solely by women, and the money received for the kernels is also controlled exclusively by them.

In the 2013 marula season 2,051 women organised in 24 associations supplied 37,500 kg of kernels to EWC, averaging a little over 18 kg of kernels per supplying member. The EWMM factory processed these kernels into over 11 tonnes of virgin oil, most of which was exported to Europe. After purification or refining, the bulk of the EWC marula oil ends up in various skincare, hair-care, and make-up ranges of BSI, which sells its products in over 2,600 retail outlets across 65 countries.

In season marula kernels and ondjove are found in nearly all open markets across the north-central regions, as well as in the main urban centres where traditional consumers reside. They are also used in a few Namibian restaurants. In some cases the products are locally traded or exchanged (as barter or gifts), especially at social events such as wedding ceremonies. Furthermore, traditional consumers in urban areas tend to source marula products from their relatives in the north-central regions. This multiform informal trade is difficult to quantify, but it can be assumed that it is far from marginal in volume, value and monetary terms on account of the very large number of rural producing households and urbanised traditional consumers.

Nevertheless, one of the pressing wishes expressed by rural women that led to the formation of the EWC was to open a large additional outlet for marula products, which could be produced and sold in much larger volumes than the traditional domestic market could absorb. Eudafano women have always explained that selling their marula kernels produced in surplus of direct home consumption was difficult, time consuming and costly, as they had to travel to sell, with no assurance of selling promptly at a remunerative price.

Cold-pressed ‘cosmetic’ marula oil and the recently developed marula food oil are also sold in national markets, either in pure form or through local SMEs that formulate and market a range of skin and hair-care products. Although there is potential for growth in many market segments, including non-traditional consumers and tourists, these outlets only utilise a tiny proportion (± 5%) of the marula oil production of EWMM.

The bulk of the EWMM cold-pressed virgin marula oil is exported to the personal care and cosmetic product formulation industry, mainly in Europe and, to a far lesser extent, in the USA. Southern African market outlets are growing, but Eudafano is not the only producer of marula oil in the sub-region. Most of the exports go through the French company Aldivia, the contract refiner for BSI which, until now, has used the greater part of the Eudafano marula oil. A smaller portion of the oil is purified and standardised by Aldivia for other international cosmetic formulators.

Over the past four years (2010 – 2013) EWC members produced around 90 tonnes of marula kernels. This period includes a very poor harvesting season in 2011, when fruiting was seriously affected by adverse climatic conditions. Total income to individual producers reached over N$2 million, with nearly N$1 million earned in 2013 alone. From these kernels EWMM produced 30 tonnes of marula oil, an average of 7.5 tonnes per year, most of which was exported. The total income generated from marula oil sales over this period was in excess of N$5.6 million.

International market demand for marula oil continues to grow, but supply has not been responding at the same rate, this despite the expansion of a number of marula oil producers and processors in Southern Africa, who may not all necessarily comply with new Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) regulations and general biotrade norms. A new challenge may emerge in the form of the ‘commoditisation’ of marula oil under the pressure of some segments of the cosmetic and personal care industry, which may want to push for competition between African producers and pull down prices while looking for higher volumes. This could represent a threat (and perhaps a new but very challenging opportunity) to community- based producers/processors such as Eudafano, who are basing their marula oil business on quality, ethical trade, community benefits and respect for the heritage represented by the marula culture.

The success of marula oil can be attributed to its intrinsic excellent and unique qualities, as well as to its ethical trade credentials that are rooted in rural Africa. The commercial success of the INP is also a result of the dedicated involvement of a number of key stakeholders, in Namibia and abroad, that eventually made it possible to link a women’s producers’ organisation (EWC) with a major global cosmetic company (BSI) that opened the international cosmetic market to this cosmetics ingredient.

EWC and its processing arm, EWMM, therefore represent an interesting and successful model of a community enterprise in biotrade, the sustainable and ethical commercialisation of biodiversity. The potential for growth of Eudafano and other Southern African producers looks great, and overall production will need to increase to meet the growing market demand. Processing probably needs to be upgraded from its present artisanal form so as to resist any price erosion, improve quality, move up the value chain and diversify market access.

Time will tell whether these challenges can easily be taken up by community-based enterprises while retaining their credentials of quality, community fair trade, biotrade standards and preservation of the marula cultural heritage.