Paving the way for good practice in a young marula oil industry
KaZa Natural Oils is a Zimbabwean-based, woman-led producer of indigenous African oils. They are Grounded Ingredient's source for marula oil, which is increasingly coveted by the cosmetic industry worldwide. As demand for marula oil starts to climb, KaZa finds itself straddling two roles as both guardian and proponent of natural and cultural heritage.
by Hailey Gaunt
27 July 2022
The labour and indigenous knowledge involved in producing marula oil is significant, and why local producers like KaZa are invaluable in the commercialisation of this so-called novel ingredient. Credit: KaZa Natural Oils
This is the sixth blog in our Transparency Series, where we take a closer look at different facets of Grounded Ingredients. Unlike traditional value chains, we are focused on traceability and transparency, working to create a system where everyone involved – from harvester or farmer to brand and customer – understands each step of the journey.
Sales of marula oil are on the uptick, like many natural ingredients worldwide. Increasingly discerning consumers and the burgeoning health and wellness industry are driving demand for so-called novel ingredients – often ingredients, like marula oil, which have been prized by indigenous communities for generations.
The marula tree, Sclerocarya birrea, is native to a broad belt of diverse ecoregions that run east to west across Southern and Central Africa’s tropical and subtropical zones. It is one of the most abundant wild fruit trees in these regions and several traditions consider it an archetypal ‘Tree of Life’, conferring spiritual, medicinal and nutritional significance to the species (Abad Jara et al, 2008). It is also of undeniable economic importance in these communities.
People of Southern Africa have been utilising every part of the marula for centuries, but the fruit, nut kernels and oil have been of particular importance (Abad Jara et al, 2008). Fruits are eaten raw or peeled and pulped, used to make juice or fermented into an alcoholic drink. Marula kernels, rich in protein and minerals, are an excellent means of fortifying everyday staples like millet or maize meal, or as an emergency food source during lean times.
Marula oil, pressed from marula kernels, is not only a good source of fat, but also an effective food preservative. Throughout Southern Africa the oil has also been used as a soothing balm for wounds, scars, or as a gentle emollient. Because of the difficulty in extracting marula oil, it has widely been considered a luxury item (Abad Jara et al, 2008).
Modern-day marula oil
Modern research has verified many of the beneficial properties of marula oil. Its relatively high proportions of oleic acid as well as linoleic fatty acid (4-7%) make it an exceptionally stable compound that is easily absorbed by the skin (Aldivia Fact Sheet). These qualities make it a gentle, non-greasy moisturiser and confer skin healing properties (Shackleton et al., 2002) and possible anti-aging effects, while research into its anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties continues. These factors, along with its pale colour and subtle nutty aroma, have piqued the interest of cosmetic companies who increasingly seek out marula oil for their formulations.
But increased commercial zeal for natural products adds new pressure to plant resources and their traditional users. While marula are currently in abundance in Southern Africa, for generations the trees have been carefully stewarded by local communities who have managed to both benefit from them materially while also ensuring that their populations remain healthy.
Extracting marula kernels – the source of marula oil – is labour intensive, careful and tedious work. Credit: KaZa Natural Oils
Commercial balancing act
Nyarai Kurebgaseka, Zimbabwean owner and founder of KaZa Natural Oils, understands that commercialisation can be both an economic boon for rural communities and a tribute to the indigenous knowledge that brought it to light – if done responsibly. If wild-harvesting practices are unsustainable or done without cooperation and benefit to local communities, both people and the environment suffer.
Since 2016, KaZa Natural Oils has been facilitating the sustainable wild harvesting of marula fruit and other plant resources in rural Zimbabwe to make high-grade, cold-pressed carrier oils. The production of these fully traceable and certified organic oils meets the highest standards for environmental and social impact. “We put a lot of emphasis on managing the forests to ensure we can access marula for many years coming,” says Kurebgaseka, “We also care about the people – the harvesters who collect the marula – and hence we treat them fairly to ensure their happiness.”
Before any harvesting takes place, KaZa performs a comprehensive resource assessment, mapping and establishing an inventory of marula trees in a particular geographic region to determine how much fruit can be harvested without adversely impacting the marula population. Although marula trees are currently abundant in Zimbabwe, enough fruit needs to be left in the wild for use by other species and to ensure reproductive rates remain stable.
KaZa’s standards exceed minimum requirements for wild harvesting natural resources. They have designed a sustainable harvesting plan using agroforestry techniques that adheres to both government standards and those required by Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission. “We are careful to look at other users of the resource,” says Kurebgaseka, “other animals that feed on it, how much fruit can be left behind for them and for regeneration.”
Local buy-in and participation is key to KaZa's business, especially in rural areas. KaZa follows Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) guidelines in training harvesters how to sustainably harvest from the wild. This is a participatory approach where all stakeholders in the community decide how much marula will be harvested, when and where harvesting will take place, and how harvesting will be done in line with cultural practices and forest management practices.
During the peak of the rainy season in Zimbabwe - typically February to March and occasionally into April - marula fruit grow in green clustered bunches. Only when they fall to the ground and turn from pale green to a waxy yellow are they gathered. Harvesters take the fresh fruit to their homesteads and extract the juice, which can be consumed as juice or fermented into beer. Once the fruit pulp is extracted the seeds are dried, which can take up to two months due to the humidity at this time of year. When seeds are fully dried, the kernals are manually extracted, a tedious process with low yields: a kilogram of seed translates into just 150g of kernels. Harvesters then bring the kernels to collection points in bags supplied to them by KaZa, where their yields are weighed and they are paid on the spot.
KaZa harvesters gathering marula fruit during harvesting season and processed marula oil. Credit: KaZa Natural Oils
Who really benefits
Generating a rural economy around marula oil has a material impact on communities who previously lacked access to work and opportunities. Household incomes realised from the sale of marula kernals allow wild harvesters to buy small livestock or pay school fees for their children, improving food security and access to education.
Employment created by KaZa has empowered women especially. Eighty-five percent of harvesters are women, owing to the employment divide in Zimbabwe wherein men seek jobs in urban areas while women tend to stay in rural areas and care for the homestead. For some women, wild-harvesting marula is their first time earning an income that does not involve their husbands. “This is significant,” says Kurebgaseka. “They have the liberty to decide what to spend the money on without consulting the husbands.”
As a local producer, the ingredients KaZa works with are part of the fabric of who they are. “I’m Zimbabwean,” says Kurebgaseka. “It only makes sense that I work here with communities in Zimbabwe – with species I’m familiar with that have been part of my life since childhood.” As demand for marula oil increases and so too the risks of exploitation, this is a vital consciousness essential to steering the industry forward.
Abad Jara, M., Gericke, N., and Welford, L. Tree of Life: The Use of Marula Oil in Southern Africa. Herbal Gram: The Journal of the American Botanical Council. 79:32-41
Aldivia. Aldivia Specification Sheets: Marula Oil-Virgin. Saint-Genis-Laval, France: Aldivia.
Shackleton S. E., Shackleton C. M., Cunningham T., Lombard C., Sullivan C., Netshiluvhi T. A summary of knowledge on Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra with emphasis on its importance as a non-timber forest product in South and southern Africa. Part 1: taxonomy, ecology, traditional uses and role in rural livelihoods. South African Forestry J. 2002. 194:27–41.