The 10-meter tall, drought-resistant marula tree thrives in arid areas, but is extremely sensitive to frost. As such, the tree, native to Africa, is naturally distributed throughout the East and the South of the continent. It’s particularly common in South Africa. The tree was also introduced to nearby islands, including Madagascar, and more distant ones, including Australia.
In the countries where marula is grown, its bark has long been used as building material, its leaves used for medicinal purposes, and its fruit for human consumption. The versatile tree is even sacred for many peoples throughout the region, but the appeal and knowledge of its aforementioned uses beyond Eastern and Southern Africa have been limited. There has only been one major exception to this trend: Amarula Cream Liqueur. The alcohol, produced by a subsidiary of Distell Group Ltd, is widely cited as the world’s second-favorite cream liqueur (following Bailey’s), and global demand for the drink is growing. The South African drink is made from distilled marula fruit, the harvest of which is celebrated for its sustainability. Harvesters scoop up ripe marula fruits once they have fallen to the ground, rather than picking them from the trees. This is due to the fact that the tree is protected by South African law, which attempts to ensure the sustainability of the cultivation and harvest of a tree that is also considered sacred by many populations in the region. And even operating under these strict harvesting realities, each tree still yields about 30 kilograms of fruit per year (the yields can be much greater with larger trees).
So the nutrient-rich fruits are collected, typically by women, and then brought to facilities where they are processed and distilled. Originally, Amarula liqueur was a clear, very strong alcoholic drink. This changed six years after its inception, in 1989, when the alcohol content was halved, and it became cream-based. These alterations dramatically boosted sales. Amarula has been hugely successful throughout the world, in part due to its unusual taste derived from a unique fruit. It’s success also comes from strong branding and marketing which have emphasized the drink’s exotic African provenance, highlighted by the elephant featured on its logo.
The marula fruit is mainly cultivated for its flesh and the production of its derivative liqueur. Now, however, the fruit’s kernel, which contains a nutritious oil, is beginning to win more attention and more demand throughout the world.
Each marula fruit holds two or three kernels, and these kernels are eventually hand-pressed to extract marula oil, which is filtered and refined following its extraction. People in Southern Africa have been extracting this oil for generations, celebrating it for its moisturizing capacity and its ability to be absorbed quickly into the skin. Despite this known use, it was not until 1999 that marula oil was widely and systematically extracted, and its uses embraced by a wider community. That year, a group of Namibian women established the Eudafano’s Women’s Cooperative (EWC), a move that represented the first time marula oil production was organized and commercialized at a significant scale. The EWC began collaborating with the Body Shop in 2000, when the international cosmetics giant began to stock a range of products containing the oil.
Experts from The Body Shop, a global personal care brand, as well as those involved in the industry more broadly, praise the fatty acid composition and oxidative stability of marula oil, and the ease and quickness with which it is absorbed into skin. Not only are there claims that the product moisturizes and smoothens the skin, but some also argue that marula oil reduces redness and even prevents aging, while also providing necessary nourishment to hair.
These properties—some scientifically confirmed, others not—have made marula an increasingly popular choice for inclusion in lotions, makeups and hair products. The Body Shop initially dominated the sale of marula-oil-containing products, but the company is now beginning to face stiff global competition. High-end products including a “night treatment” from Lancer Skincare, to more mid- and low-range hair products have begun successfully marketing marula-containing products to many parts of the world.
The Leakey Collection, a Kenyan company that sells sustainable fair trade Kenyan crafts to an international market, has been particularly successful with its sales of marula oil products. The company sells a 50 milliliter, $78 “pure oil” through its own website, as well as through known third-party retailers like Sephora. This oil is derived from some of the 6,000 marula trees growing naturally on farmland belonging to the founders of the namesake Leakey Collection. The Leakeys announced their intention to plant another 50,000 marula trees, as well as their plan to select trees based on the size of the kernels they produce, rather than the size of their fruit, which is the current practice. The operation already provides employment for several hundred people, particularly women, and the Leakeys are optimistic that it could employ several thousand more as the operations expand to help meet growing demand.
The story of a seemingly panacean African beauty oil is all-too-familiar to contemporary Morocco. Southwestern Morocco depends on native argan trees for survival: they provide bark, their fruits serve as feed for goats, and the trees even serve as an important buffer against the looming threat of desertification. And within these tree’s fruits even exists a “brown gold”: argan oil. The oil is extracted in much the same way as marula oil—kernels are cracked, and the oil is pressed and eventually refined before being sold by female-dominated cooperatives.
Argan oil is used in cooking, and its fatty acid composition and high vitamin E content are praised as being beneficial to cardiovascular health. But it has been argan oil’s use in cosmetics for skin and hair that has catapulted the product into the international limelight. Within the past decade, argan oil has begun to appear as a key ingredient in a staggering array of cosmetic products, and in the process has won over a sizeable number of global devotees. Moroccan exports of argan oil more than doubled in the period between 2008 and 2013, which has helped offer stability and higher wages for the country’s female-dominated argan cooperatives—the only groups processing and selling the good in significant qualities. These cooperative members extract the oil in a time-consuming, labor-intensive process: cosmetic argan oil is not roasted (unlike the culinary version), and the women use stones to crack the extremely hard kernels which creates a paste, and this paste is in turn hand-kneaded and mixed with water in order to extract the oil. Many of these cooperatives will sell their oil themselves, to local markets, tourists and through partnerships with international companies; while others will sell their products to factories. The price for argan oil in Morocco is typically much lower than prices received in the West, and some Western distributors will dilute the oil while still charging high prices. Cooperatives are reaping the benefits of their product. Indicators like school attendance have even risen encouragingly in producing regions, but stronger linkages with Western producers would benefit cooperative members more.
The Moroccan government has played an important role in supporting production by investing millions of dollars in argan oil development projects. In October 2011, the Moroccan government applied for argan to obtain Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status with the European Union, and soon after became the first African country to receive the EU status. Such status means that “argan oil” refers to that which has been produced in Southwestern Morocco, and such oils with an “authentic” origin boast particular special qualities. PGI status also helps ensure consumers that the product they are buying has met preordained, known quality standards.
This type of special status for Moroccan argan oil may become increasingly important for local producers as more international competitors begin to enter the market. Indeed, the opportunity presented by argan production has been so attractive that for several years now, the owners of Oren Farms, located in Israel’s Negev Desert, have been cultivating the tree in hopes of bridging the looming supply gap. Assigning a special status to the argan oil produced in Morocco could have a multitude of benefits, particularly around ensuring that the demand for the Moroccan oil remains stable. Branding that emphasizes the Moroccan provenance of the oil will help the good carve out a niche market for itself, and help the product demand high, premium prices.
In September 2013, the global essential oils market was worth an estimated $1 billion. This is a small fraction of the size of the larger personal care industry, whose worth is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The share of essential, “natural” oils is growing quickly, especially as consumers around the world turn away from more synthetic cosmetic products.
The opportunity for marula is big, and is slated to grow. Production will have to grow beyond the relatively small existing production centers in Kenya and Namibia in order to meet future demand. As marula becomes a globally sought-after product, its producers and stakeholders can learn important lessons from the argan oil experience. First, government support and buy-in can be extremely powerful, and governments can play an important role in supporting cooperatives. Maintaining a cooperative-type model can be a very good feature of these sorts of products, as the appeal of a “natural” or “organic” oil often goes hand in hand with the appeal of a cooperative, transparent, “fair-trade” production model. Lastly, countries producing marula have an interest in branding the oil as a uniquely African product, just as Morocco is currently doing with argan, to ensure that these countries are not crowded out by new foreign producers.