Marula nuts are growing SA’s rural entrepreneurs in a win-win partnership with scientists and conservationists

Elisabeth Goyvaerts

Rural South Africa is characterized by high unemployment often reaching above 85 and even 90%, limited skills, persistent poverty and a bleak economic outlook.

Finding ways to ramp up the ability of rural populations to derive economic benefit from natural resources, and in a sustainable way is viewed as a key driver to bring real change to disenfranchised communities.

But taking the leap into entrepreneurship is a rather large one.  Can natural rural resources be translated into an economically viable sector?  The lack of appropriate technology and understanding of markets can make that leap even greater. 

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.

During the fruiting season, women in particular in rural areas often collect fallen fruit from underneath the tree and brew an alcoholic beverage known as marula beer. Some households dry and store a portion of nuts to crack manually and eat, use as relish or as a source of grease for cooking.

Taking a peek inside the marula nut is where the real value lies. The nuts harbour a kernel or seed that contains around 65% oil. And marula oil is a rather high value oil, sought-after in the cosmetics industry.  Marula is however a tough nut to crack. 

Brewers throw most of the nuts away, or burn them as fuel because cracking nuts to extract the kernels is very time consuming.

A rapidly growing demand for novel natural oils and the enduring demand of the cosmetic industry for the same represents an obvious market sector. 

Enter Everpix a company with a plan. After a few years of design and redesign, scientists at Everpix developed a cunning multistep process for cracking the marula nuts in a simple process to extract the elusive marula oil.  The process was designed in such a way that it could be scalable, easily replicated and can be adapted to extract oils from other raw materials.

Technology still needs people and with the technology in place, community work and meaningful partnering, training and setting up of benefit sharing is critical. The young company slowly set up a community network in parts of South Africa to supply sufficient nuts to turn this into economic benefit for participating communities.

In its impressive 2012/3 pilot, the company, working with community partners, on average doubled the income of 275 households in 52 communities for one month. It achieved this while not taking  extensive time away from vital subsistence activity. 

With proof in hand, Everpix has set itself the goal of further increasing the income per household, replicating the process to other communities in South Africa so that in 3 to 8 years participating households can secure a respectable annual income every year.

That is just one part of the equation. Sustainability for the environment and for future production is key. Everpix found a natural partner in the African Conservation Trust, experienced in community natural resource management and conservation agriculture.  The team set out a plan which seeks to plant trees and also train communities in conservation agriculture securing future partnerships.  The add-on is that planting trees helps mitigate climate change and in itself has the potential to create employment in rural areas of South Africa.

Partnering industry with rural communities makes sense linking rural resources to global markets in a move which benefits people, the planet and creates a healthy profit. Some quick calculations project that one tree could provide an income of ZAR1000. Considering that marula trees reach maturity in 5 – 8 years, planting 30 trees around a rural home is an investment which could provide significant incomes for one household feeding up to six people. Encouraging results with a strong goal.

Little wonder then that the partnership between  Everpix , the African Conservation Trust (ACT) and community members  received international acclaim and was awarded the prestigious 2011 SEEDAWARD.

The SEED Initiative is a global partnership for action on sustainable development and the green economy. Founded by UNEP, UNDP and IUCN at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, SEED supports innovative small scale and locally driven entrepreneurship around the globe which integrates social and environmental benefits into their business model.

The goal of SEED is to support the ability of such entrepreneurs to scale up or replicate their activities: Achim Steiner of the UNEP, host of the SEED initiative, heralds SEED award winners as shining examples of innovation, intelligent management, hard work and as champions of the belief that environmental challenges can be solved in a way that also creates economic and social benefits. That, in a nutshell sums up the Everpix-ACT pact.

The seed then is literally planted for Everpix-ACT and its community members and with strong investment, a model which can work in South Africa.


* Dr Liz Goyvaerts is Director of Everpix PTY (LTD)