Where money grows on trees – marula quenches economic thirst in rural Limpopo

Where money grows on trees – marula quenches economic thirst in rural Limpopo
A colourful ceremony involving dance groups from different parts of Limpopo marked the official marula season at the Muti wa VaTsonga Cultural village, about 60km east of Tzaneen, on 4 March 2023. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba)

The popular fruit is helping women’s cooperatives in rural areas and informal traders in Limpopo to generate an income.

Every morning in marula season Dudu Maitjie and four other women from a cooperative trudge through the streets and hills around the villages in Sekhukhune, Limpopo, picking up the fruit and gathering it into hessian sacks.

Collecting marula, in season in late summer, is energy-sapping work that includes walking long distances, often in blisteringly hot temperatures, and climbing rocky hills on the outskirts of rural villages.

“If we can fill up 10 bags in a day then we are satisfied,” says Maitjie, a member of the Sekhukhune Women’s Club cooperative.

Fortunately for Maitjie and her colleagues, her family has a bakkie which they use to travel to far-off areas and bring the full sacks back home.

Esther Nxumalo and Joyce Mhangani collect marula fruit Makhushwane village near Ba-Phalaborwa in Limpopo. They will process the fruit and ferment it into a potent drink which they sell along the road at R25 for a two-litre container. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

“People already know about us. When it’s marula season you will hear them calling out at us: ‘Hey, marula a weele! Etlang le tšeye marulaaaa!’” (Translated from Northern Sotho, this means “Hey, marula have dropped! Come get marulaaaa!”)

The five-member, women-only co-op started this practice in 2006. It was part of a beneficiation programme by the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism for the annual Marula Festival.

I have managed to build myself a three-roomed house with the money I earned from marula. That is why it pains [me] when I see other women not realising that there is life in marula.

This year, 15 co-ops from around the pro­vince contributed 6,000 litres of homemade marula brew to the festival. The two-week festivities in Phalaborwa include music, a cultural carnival, an SMME exhibition, a tourism career expo, a fun fair, a marathon, a comedy show and a trade fair at which individuals and co-ops show off their wares to visitors.

“I have managed to build myself a three-roomed house with the money I earned from marula. That is why it pains [me] when I see other women not realising that there is life in marula,” Maitjie says.

Women from cooperatives in Limpopo’s rural villages process marula fruit into beer as part of a beneficiation programme linked to the annual Marula Festival. (Photo: Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism)

Once the women have collected enough fruit, they gather to brew the liquor in big drums. “There are different types of this brew,” explains Maitjie. “The one that we brew, the sweet one, takes between one and two days. The stronger, bitter one takes a little longer because it needs time to ferment.”

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The brewing process requires skill and patience. The women use forks to peel the skin from the fruit, then gather the fruit into big drums to squeeze out the liquid and separate the pips. It is then left in the drums overnight to ferment.

Once ready, the brew is collected by truck and taken to the festival venue in Phalaborwa.

Initially, the co-ops were required to supply 1,000 litres of the brew to be sold and consumed during the festival. But as the number of co-ops has grown, they are now required to contribute only 400 litres.

Like manna

Marula fruit grows in abundance in the northern provinces of the country, including Limpopo. During marula season the fruit ripens and drops from the abundant, gigantic trees, turning the ground into a colourful mix of bright green and yellow – an offering from the gods akin to the biblical manna from heaven.

The fruit is collected in bulk by rural folk who brew a potent organic liquor that’s enjoyed at home or sold by informal traders in public areas. Usually the vendors package it in two-litre cooldrink containers and rest in the shade of the same magical trees to sell to passers-by. But for formalised co-ops such as the Sekhukhune Women’s Club, the brew offers an opportunity to showcase their wares at the festival, which is hosted in the town of Phalaborwa in Limpopo’s Mopani district.

Women turn marula into a potent organic liquor. (Photo: Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism)

People are invited to display their wares, which include by-products of the fruit such as cosmetics, atchar, juice, herbal remedies, cooking oil and soap, at the festival.

Maitjie says the women would like to venture into processing other marula by-­products but have no idea where to start.

“Marula is our wealth, it’s our heritage… Our only challenge is that the season comes once. But we want to find other ways of ensuring we continue beyond the festival. If we can get assistance to make other products from it then we can help more women to earn a living. That is the help we need,” she says. Mukurukuru Media/DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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