Transparency Series

Does sustainable wild harvesting exist?

Some difficult to farm ingredients are still harvested from the wild. Given that human demand appears to be infinite and these resources finite, our appetite for these ingredients has the potential to put their wild habitats at risk.

by Elzanne Singels, edited by Hailey Gaunt

1 December 2021

KaZa's Managing Director, Nyarai Kurebgaseka, in conversation with a group of sustainable wild harvesters. 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 transparency and traceability, working to create a system where everyone involved – from harvester or farmer to brand and customer – understands each step of the journey.

In the distant past we harvested or hunted everything we needed from the bounty of nature. Humans were part of the ecosystem and all our needs were met by the environment around us. As we learned how to farm crops and, eventually, to industrialise agriculture, the global population exploded far beyond the capacity the natural environment could maintain. We transformed large tracts of natural habitat to facilitate the development of humanity. 

But some sought-after ingredients that cannot be cultivated will always be wild collected. Is it possible to both use and conserve natural resources and the habitats that produce them? Is sustainable wild harvesting realistic, or is it a fallacy? Is all wild harvesting detrimental to the ecology of Earth’s remaining natural environments?

We’re diving into this topic with one of our producers: KaZa Natural Oils, a women-led initiative diversifying the conservation economy to include rural and indigenous communities. Since 2016, they have facilitated the sustainable wild harvesting of natural plant resources in rural Zimbabwe, working alongside community structures and authorities at every level, and we are proud to source a variety of indigenous seed oils from them. In this piece, we use KaZa’s baobab oil as a case study to illustrate how wild ingredients can be harvested in a sustainable manner, while also including indigenous knowledge holders in the process of--and benefits from--commercialisation.

We learn that not only is sustainable wild harvesting possible, it can be integral to the longterm conservation of indigenous cultures and protection of the areas where these resources occur.

Conservation, commercialisation and communities 

Most protected areas are established with the primary goal of conserving biodiversity, but increasingly we recognise the other roles these areas play. Ecosystems provide us with food, water, clean air and many other tangible and intangible services, while also supporting socio-economic development opportunities that are often scarce in remote areas. 

The establishment of protected areas is an historically fraught topic, in part because these ecosystem services were not always factored in. Protected areas are often associated with colonial processes of displacement and dispossession, while the ongoing management of protected areas has been subject to exclusionary policies. This model of conservation is called ‘Fortress Conservation,’ where our few remaining natural areas are ring-fenced and every attempt is made to exclude human impact. In this model, local communities are barred from interacting with the land and biodiversity that forms part of their culture and livelihood.

The problems with this conservation paradigm have since been recognized and alternate models have been developed that better consider the long-term preservation of both biodiversity and cultural heritage. To this end, in 1992 the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing helped to formalise a better framework for the sustainable and equitable utilisation of biodiversity. This agreement--ratified by 128 nations and most African countries--serves as a guideline for the commercialisation of natural resources. (How access and benefit sharing guidelines are implemented is its own subject, to be discussed in a future blog.)

Harvesters collecting baobab pods in rural Zimbabwe. Credit: KaZa Natural Oils

Case study: the market for baobab oil 

The massive baobab tree occurs throughout southern Africa. For millennia, the pods produced by the baobab have been used by indigenous people. Traditionally, baobab seeds were eaten raw or roasted to yield an edible oil. The seeds are also used medicinally to treat gastric, kidney and joint diseases. Multiple commercial products have been developed from the baobab, baobab powder and oil the most popular.

When these products were registered as novel ingredients in the EU market, international demand for them spiked. A sizable market for baobab oil has arisen in the cosmetic industry, eagerly drawing on the oils' skin rejuvenating properties. A highly-stable compound rich in essential fatty acids, baobab oil is one of the few oils that can be added to cosmetic products in raw form. Its quick absorption means it’s often used in product formulations for intensive-moisture of skin and hair. High in vitamins A and F, important for skin elasticity and cell-regeneration, and displaying increased levels of vitamin E, baobab oil has excellent antioxidant properties with anti-aging effects.

At current market prices, baobab oil could generate up to $20 million for Zimbabwe and provide income for two million people. According to a 2005 study, the sale of baobab fruit increased income for rural people by 250% in the areas in Zimbabwe where wild harvesting occurs (Gruenwald and Galizia). It’s worth noting that the economic potential of harvesting is especially significant for women. In the rural areas where KaZa Natural Oils operates, agricultural production is low and employment scarce. Households frequently send family members to urban hubs to work, leaving women behind to look after the homesteads. Up to eighty-seven per cent of KaZa’s harvesters are female, making harvesting an important economic equalizer in these regions. 

Baobab trees grow slowly, and for this reason are nearly impossible to farm. While many countries in Africa have a considerable surplus available and production capacity, demand for baobab may exceed the available supply in the medium to longer term. This balance therefore needs to be closely monitored.

The nuts & bolts of sustainable wild harvesting

First of all, for wild harvesting to be truly sustainable, there are a few non-negotiables: 

1. A resource assessment has to be performed to evaluate the wild population size and the potential total yield of the resource

2. A sustainable harvesting plan must be established and implemented

3. Harvesters must be trained to harvest using sustainable practices

4. Following harvesting, the species population needs to be monitored continually to ensure that the harvesting activities do not have a negative impact on the population

In KaZa's case, various academic studies have been performed in areas where wild harvesting of baobab has been pursued. This is critical: in order to determine sustainable yield amounts, reliable data on population demographics and plant production levels are required, taking into account plant size, site characteristics, predation and inter-annual variation (Venter & Witkowski, 2010). These studies describe the biology and ecology of the areas earmarked for baobab seed harvesting and present estimates of the sustainable volumes that could be harvested without diminishing the reproductive rate of the trees, or affecting the animals that consume their seeds. 

Sorting baobab seeds before processing. Credit: KaZa Natural Oils

KaZa’s wild-harvesting process began with an assessment of baobab resources in Zimbabwe. Research found that the trees occur in 20% of the country, in a density of around 8.44 mature, fruiting trees per hectare (Bennett, 2006). A review of all studies conducted on the biology, ecology and resource assessments of baobab in Zimbabwe found that 1,300 tonnes of baobab oil could be sustainably harvested per year (Phytotrade, 2007). This potential yield from Zimbabwe alone far exceeds the total demand for the entire baobab oil industry today--for example, the EU market is roughly 40 tonnes per year. Thus the current demand for baobab products could be met by sustainably wild harvesting, so long as populations are continually monitored to validate the resource assessment and to ensure the ecology of harvesting areas remains intact. 

KaZa next step towards harvesting was an intensively collaborative process, working alongside structures and authorities who offer oversight on every level. In Zimbabwe, this includes the Rural District Council, Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission and the Environmental Management Agency. Harvesters themselves are also organised in collectives, with their own structure of advocates that represent their interests and negotiate prices. These harvesters are then trained in quality standards and the guidelines of sustainable harvesting. 

Harvesting can only begin when these steps have been taken. Only then, between May and August when baobabs drop their seed pods, can harvesters collect with strict adherence to size specifications and volume limits per area. Borrowing from agroforestry techniques, these methods are designed to prevent overutilization and encourage future growth. Once the pods are gathered, they are brought to a local collection point where KaZa field officers inspect and purchase directly from harvesters. From here, the pods are transported to a processing facility in Harare to be opened, shelled and seeded. The white, nutrient-rich powdery pith is scraped from the seeds for use in the food and beverage industry and seed samples are sent off for lab testing to ensure trees are healthy and quality standards remain high. To extract the oil, clean seeds are fed into a press, resulting in both the oil and a dry seed puck. The cold-pressed oil is then left to stand, allowing sediments to settle, and bottled (it is only only filtered if necessary).

KaZa does not treat this as a linear or extractive process, where resources and labour get used without being replenished. Regular monitoring of the environmental resource and engagement with the harvesting collectives continually feed back and inform how the business works. Botanical assessments are continuously conducted to assess impact on the ecology of harvesting areas, and baobab populations are closely monitored. Harvester collectives share their challenges throughout the harvesting season and KaZa’s regional representative shares this feedback with KaZa’s central leadership. KaZa also has an annual planting program where they cultivate and plant baobab trees in the conservancies on an annual basis, further ensuring the replenishment of the resource base.

Harvesters carry baobab pods from an established baobab grove. Credit: KaZa Natural Oils

Sustainable Wild Harvesting in a Nutshell

There are many cases of unsustainable wild harvesting having detrimental impacts on targeted species, the species that rely on the target species and, sometimes, the entire ecosystem where harvesting occurs. There is no reason to support these practices, but often a lack of oversight and transparency allows them to persist. While a harvesting plan is a minimum requirement by law in most countries, it is critical for suppliers of wild harvested ingredients to be transparent about how wild harvesting plans are developed, how they are implemented, and how they are monitored over time.

Conservation of biodiversity won't be achieved by simply excluding all humans from the habitats in question. In fact, conservation is most effective when local communities become custodians or stewards of the land and its biodiversity. Where true sustainable wild harvesting is practiced, the benefits are manifold: it can support the longterm conservation of protected areas by ensuring that local communities benefit from their natural resources remaining wild, while also restoring access to the areas and biodiversity essential to their culture and heritage.

KaZa shows us how value chains for wild harvested products can be developed in an equitable and sustainable manner. We are immensely proud to support their work by offering their oils to buyers invested in knowing both the people and the ecologies behind their ingredients. 

References:

Bennett, Ben. (2006) Foreign direct investment in South Africa: how big is Southern Africa’s natural product opportunity and what trade issues impede sectoral development? Trade @ work . The Regional Trade Facilitation Programme, Pretoria, South Africa, pp. 1-112. ISBN 0-621-36528-9

Gruenwald, J., and M. Galizia. (2005) Market brief in the European Union for selected natural ingredients derived from native species: Baobab (Adansonia digitata L.). UNCTAD/DITC/TED

Venter, Sarah M., and Ed TF Witkowski. (2011) Baobab (Adansonia digitata L.) fruit production in communal and conservation land-use types in Southern Africa. Forest Ecology and Management 261.3: 630-639.

PhytoTrade Africa. (2007) A review of some commercial opportunities of natural products in Zimbabwe, Report.

Shop KaZa Natural Oils' organic and FairWild certified baobab oil here >>