Marula (Sclerocarya birrea) is a medium-sized to large deciduous tree that is widespread in dry, frost-free parts of Africa. In Swaziland, about 2 million marula trees grow, mostly in the lowveld. Here, it grows naturally in indigenous forest and bushveld, in communal grazing lands, fields and homesteads.
Our harvesting areas are rural communities without industry and with very little commerce, where indigenous livestock roam free and each family has a small field for subsistence farming. Due to the prevailing poverty and the uncertainty of crop yields caused by little and erratic rainfall, virtually no synthetic fertiliser or pesticides are used and many fields have lain fallow for years.
A mature marula tree produces about 500 kg of fruit each year, which drops to the ground while still green around February and March. Animals eat some of the fruit and thus help dispersal of seeds. Much of the fruit is gathered by rural women who strip the pulp to brew a traditional alcoholic drink, called “buganu”. The hard-shelled nuts are then sun-dried for a few weeks and eventually cracked by hand to extract the seeds from which marula oil is pressed.
Based on the number of trees, their location and productivity, we calculate that the seeds that go into our marula oil represent 1% of all the seeds produced annually in the lowveld areas of Swaziland, and 10% of the seeds produced in the harvesting areas. This volume leaves plenty of seeds in the natural cycle for the continued natural propagation of marula trees.
However, there are other factors besides use of the seeds that reduce the number of seedlings that manage to grow into a mature tree. To ensure that future generations will have an equally plentiful supply of marula, we have agreements with our suppliers for planting and nurturing further trees e.g. by putting up a barrier to protect the emerging tree from grazing livestock.
We are also in the process of setting up monitoring plots where annual counting and measuring of marula trees in different environments will give us further insights into the factors that hinder or promote growth of new trees.
Fortunately, marula trees are protected from felling by traditional laws which are enforced by local chiefs – and actively monitored by our suppliers who are increasingly vocal defenders of this communally owned resource.
The soundness of our sustainability assessment and strategy is verified as part of the organic certification process. While only a part of our marula oil production is certified as organic, sustainability has to be proven for the entire harvesting volume, including the non-certified oil.
|Photo: Linda Loffler