Rural Swazi woman turns childhood hobby into source of income

Thembi Hlatshwako crushes the marula fruit as her daughter learns the trait secret
Thembi Hlatshwako crushes the marula fruit as her daughter learns the trade secret

As a child, Thembi Hlatshwako knew how to crush marula seeds for fun with her friends and other village children. It was part of her childhood hobbies because marula seeds were plentiful in her neighbourhood. So in her 40s, as a married mother of seven, and needing to make ends meet, crushing marula seeds for sale came naturally to her. 

In the past, she had no savings and no hope for meeting the basic needs of her family. Her husband is a builder who relies on temporary work in the neighbourhood and is often idle. As a result, he cannot support his family adequately. Now, 48 year old Hlatshwako earns a living by selling marula seeds at a local company she partly-owns, which was established within her community. Since marula is a seasonal fruit, she also sells fruits and vegetables at a make-shift market during the dry months.

Highlights

  • Thembi Hlatshwako is one of the beneficiaries of a rural project in Swaziland which is helping 2,400 rural women earn a living through selling seed kernels from indigenous trees namely Marula; Trichllia and Ximenia.
  • UNDP has been working with Swaziland Indigenous Products - a 100% women owned company, branded as Swazi Secrets, to ensure sustainability for the project.

“Life was hard before I joined the marula project, but the benefits have been tremendous. I am now able to provide for my family and save money. Each December, I am able to earn dividends from the company and buy things for my household. I have bought a fridge and a 5,000 litre water tank – all thanks to the earnings I got from marula project ,” she explained.

Hlatshwako is one of the beneficiaries of a rural project in Swaziland which is helping 2,400 rural women earn a living through selling seed kernels from indigenous trees namely Marula; Trichllia and Ximenia. Cosmetic oil is extracted from these trees and used to produce natural skin care products such as soaps, oils and lotions that are sold in major stores worldwide. “Initially I supplied a two-litre container of marula seeds and then progressed to 10 litres. Now I can crush a 25-litre container of marula seeds with ease,” she said.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been working with Swaziland Indigenous Products - a 100% women owned company, branded as Swazi Secrets, to ensure sustainability for the project. The company was established in 2004 to help rural women earn an income by exploring the full potential of indigenous trees in their communities.   

The successes of the project have been manifold. An income amounting to over USD 500,000 has been generated for the women, who supply the seed kernels used to produce the cosmetics products. The women have become business owners, managing and running the manufacturing of cosmetics with help from development partners and the private sector. Also, 13 locals (nine women and four men) have secured full-time jobs with Swazi Secrets.  More have been employed as seasonal workers for the project during harvest seasons. In addition, the project was selected in 2012 as one of 25 winners for the Equator Prize – a UNDP initiative to recognize and advance local sustainable development solutions for people, nature and resilient communities.

Swazi Secrets is an initiative spearheaded by Her Majesty, the Queen Mother of Swaziland, with the aim of empowering rural women and supporting them to earn an income at household level. It has empowered rural women by allowing them to buy shares from the company and giving them preferential treatment during price negotiations.     

UNDP has also helped the project establish key fair-trade markets in Europe, provided production equipment as well as assistance with branding. As a result, Swazi Secrets has realized a major increase in exports and enhanced sustainable practices. The latter is mainly achieved through monitored harvesting of the indigenous marula tree seeds to support the manufacture of their products. 

The community-based initiatives have resulted in socio-economic growth for the women, who now feel empowered in decision-making and management of their profits and assets. 

“Since inception, the project has reached break-even point,” said Chris Dlamini, the Project Manager for Swazi Secrets. Dlamini also indicated that the project’s evaluation identified its capacity to expand and produce additional value-added products, such as hair food and shampoo.  

Overall, this project is contributing towards poverty alleviation through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and through equitable benefit sharing from the use of genetic resources. It has also led to integration of HIV prevention and wellness issues in the project through the Swaziland Business Coalition on HIV and AIDS (SWABCHA) in an attempt to reach the women members. Besides UNDP, other partners who have provided support include WK Kellogg Foundation and Shared Interest in the United Kingdom.

The project’s success has also generated possibilities of up-scaling the model in the country. For Hlatshwako, it has made possible her dream to be able to plan for herself and her family; “This December, I want to crush more marula seeds so that I can be paid enough to buy blankets for my family and save for my children’s school fees for the next academic year.”

Marula (Sclerocarya birrea) is a medium-sized to large deciduous tree that is widespread in dry, frost-free parts of Africa. In Swaziland, about 2 million marula trees grow, mostly in the Lowveld where it grows naturally in indigenous forest and bushveld, in communal grazing lands, fields and homesteads. 

A mature marula tree produces about 500 kg of fruit each year, which drops to the ground while still green around February and March. Animals eat some of the fruit and thus help dispersal of seeds. Much of the fruit is gathered by rural women who strip the pulp to brew a traditional alcoholic drink, called “buganu”. The hard-shelled nuts are then sun-dried for a few weeks and eventually cracked by hand to extract the seeds from which marula oil is pressed. (Source: www.swazisecrets.com)


A close up of the picked and crushed Marula Fruit side by sideA close up of the picked and crushed Marula Fruit side by side