The Phalaborwa area of Limpopo – marula country – is set to get a multi-million rand marula hub as the Limpopo provincial government works to take beneficiation of the indigenous fruit beyond the alcohol industry.
The marula fruit is known for its use in the popular Distell-owned Amarula Cream Liqueur. Most of Distell’s marula supply comes from Limpopo, where rural women cultivate the fruit as a means of income.
The new Marula Industrial Hub – complete with processing facilities, a research centre and agri-business support services for rural farmers and small businesses wanting to get into the marula value chain – is scheduled to be up and running next year.
Speaking at the launch of the 2019 Marula Festival in Lephalale at the weekend, Limpopo MEC for economic development and tourism Seaparo Sekoati said plans were at an advanced stage, with the hub set to be open in time for the milestone 15th Annual Marula Festival in February 2020.
He told Moneyweb later that the Limpopo Treasury has already allocated R10 million in initial funding for the hub, with further funding from other government departments and agencies also on the cards.
The marula tree, a protected species in SA, grows wild in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal as well as dozens of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where rural communities have harvested its fruit for centuries.
“More than 1 500 rural women derive direct and indirect benefits from seasonal marula activities between January and March annually in the province,” says Sekoati. “This includes harvesting and supply to Distell, which is a partner the province is constantly engaging for the sustenance of the marula industry.
“Phalaborwa is known as SA’s main marula growing region and we want to leverage off this to boost economic development and further commercialise the fruit for the community’s benefit. The Marula Hub is aimed at unlocking opportunities and the value-chain of the marula fruit. Some 14 co-operatives will be housed at the hub.
“We have used the initial R10 million in funding to buy equipment for the hub, with the rest earmarked for the land. A 15 hectare site has been identified, and will have multi-purpose community grounds that will become the new home of the annual Marula Festival and be for the use of the local community.”
Sekoati says the Annual Marula Festival has entrenched itself as a major event in Limpopo, attracting more than 30 000 people over the two weekends that it is held. The current venue has reached capacity and the new location will be able to handle 50 000 people.
“The marula fruit is a part of our heritage and the festival was launched to promote the area where it grows in abundance, and where it is harvested mainly by rural women. We want to develop a sustainable industry out of this wild fruit in order to help address the triple challenges of inequality, poverty and unemployment in the region.
Research into other uses
“There is a great opportunity here to expand the marula value-chain beyond just the production of traditional morula (correct) beer and raw marula supply to Distell,” says Sekoati. “The marula fruit is very high in Vitamin C and can be used for juice production as well as other products such as marula jam and for use in cosmetics. We are looking at working with the University of Limpopo at the hub to do research into marula uses and beneficiation.”
Sonto Ndlovu, CEO of the Limpopo Tourism Agency, says that besides traditional morula beer production, events held as part of the festival include open-air concerts, markets and even a marathon. The event attracts people from neighbouring countries and other parts of SA as well as tourists visiting the Kruger National Park.
“The Marula Festival has a positive economic impact of more than R45 million on the destination and the local community,” she says. “It has grown in stature over the last 13 years, and we estimate that about 10% of the more than 30 000 people who attend the event are international visitors. This is set to grow as we’ve started creating tour packages around the festival. The event has inspired a different kind of thinking around what the province can do around agri-tourism.”
Questioned by Moneyweb about the potential of the nascent marula industry, noted agricultural economist Wandile Sihlobo says: “Marula falls under the horticulture space, however any sustainable investment in the development of the crop is positive, especially if it benefits rural communities.
“Such investments are welcome as they are in line with the country’s objectives of generating growth and employment in the more labour-intensive farming and agri-processing sectors. Speaking broadly, any value-add or beneficiation in a primary product is a good thing, so the marula industry is one to watch.”