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Mongongo - a tough nut worth cracking

Mongongo trees are found in several belts that stretch across much of southern Africa (PhytoTrade Africa)
Mongongo trees are found in several belts that stretch across much of southern Africa
PhytoTrade Africa

In a good year, fallen mongongo fruit can cover the ground ankle-deep beneath trees that stretch over wide areas. Favouring sandy soil types, and found in much of southern Africa, from Namibia and Botswana across to Mozambique, mongongo trees (Schinziophyton rautanenii), also known as manketti, have provided both food and skin care to local people for 7,000 years or more. Looking like velvet-covered eggs, the mongongo fruit yield a thin layer of nutritious pulp and a hard-cased, oil-rich kernel, similar in appearance to a small hazelnut, with the taste of a roasted cashew or almond. Used as a skin rub, mongongo oil can out-perform most modern moisturisers, hydrating and regenerating the skin, and providing a protective layer against the harsh Kalahari sun and wind.

In Sesheke district, south western Zambia, mongongo kernels are the new cash crop for communities previously dependent on small grains and livestock rearing. More than 3,000 individuals now sell kernels to Kalahari Natural Oils (KNO), which sources oil for international skin care brands like the Body Shop. Cracking the nuts is traditionally the domain of women, who use stones or small axes to break the hard outer casing. The difficulty of extracting the kernel is one reason why exploitation of mongongo has been limited in the past. In harvesting for KNO, women have continued to dominate, and constitute 80 per cent of the mongongo collectors in Sesheke. Harvest time comes in April and May, with a single tree yielding as many as 900 nuts per year. Falling outside the harvesting season for farm crops, this new activity generates income at a time when it is needed most.

Double your money - or more

Collection and cracking of mongongo nuts is traditionally done by women (PhytoTrade Africa)
Collection and cracking of mongongo nuts is traditionally done by women
PhytoTrade Africa

Kalahari Natural Oils has been assisted, particularly in its marketing activities, by the southern Africa natural products trade association, PhytoTrade Africa. According to the association's impact specialist, Nontokozo Nemarundwe, collectors used to earn around US$100 per year from the nuts they harvested. Supplying KNO has allowed some households to earn four times this, with the average income per year being around US$200 per producer. Men are now assisting in collecting of nuts and in transporting them from the bush to the homestead. They also transport the kernels to the central collection points, which have been set up every 10-15km in the harvesting areas, with one storage warehouse in each district. Suppliers are paid immediately, in cash, according to the weight of kernels delivered.

Each kernel is at least 30 per cent oil, predominantly the skin-enhancing linoleic acid. As a food source, the kernels also contain large amounts of protein, calcium, magnesium and iron, and have a high vitamin E content, which keeps the oil from going rancid in the Kalahari heat. The nuts are cold-pressed at the KNO factory, without use of solvents or other chemicals, and the extracted oil is used in a range of skin and beauty products, from moisturisers and baby-creams to shampoo, lipstick and soap.

KNO is keen to share information on markets and market opportunities with the communities, so that they understand how the oils are used and in what products. Training courses have been organised to strengthen quality standards and to highlight the importance of proper handling and storage of the nuts to prevent contamination. The company is also planning to apply for organic certification, and new nut-cracking devices are also being developed, to speed up the process for the collectors.

A promising future

Mongongo oil is now being used in moisturisers by several international skincare brands. (PhytoTrade Africa)
Mongongo oil is now being used in moisturisers by several international skincare brands.
PhytoTrade Africa

As the value of the mongongo trees has increased, steps to prevent over-harvesting have become a consideration. Traditional leaders are actively involved, supporting local natural resource committees and working closely with the Zambian forestry department; a local network has been established to share information on harvesting activities. "At the moment we have not seen the danger of overharvesting," says Nemarundwe. "The market is there but is not yet big enough to threaten the species. However, if the market grows, we will need to carry out studies on sustainable harvesting levels." Fortunately, Mongongo trees are easy to propagate, can withstand several years of drought, and grow quickly, with little management required. They also yield several other products, including a lightweight but strong timber, similar to balsa.

Kalahari Natural Oils is currently producing up to 12 tonnes of mongongo oil per year, and has been keen to not only develop the supply chain, but also the market for the oil. The company supplies a range of mongongo products to the Spar supermarket chain in Zambia, and is currently trying to link with South African businesses. Further afield, participation in international trade shows has been a key part of their strategy, rewarded by their breakthrough into the European market.

Written by: Busani Bafana

Date published: July 2009


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Busani, how do we contact Kalahari Natural Oils? (posted by: TU)


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