Namibia: Family business commercialising the marula fruit

Marula oil products produced by Taneta Investments.

By Vitalio Angula, bird

A family business taps into indigenous knowledge to produce a highly sought-after oil.

When Matty Nengola retired from his job at the Khomas Directorate of Education in central Namibia, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He could finally commit himself full-time to the family business and support his wife Namupa whose traditional knowledge of a local fruit had given rise to a flourishing small business – processing and exporting marula oil.

“It is this transfer of knowledge from when I was a little girl that inspired me to take a leap of faith and embark on this entrepreneurial journey of attempting to commercialise marula and bring it on the market as a product which is standardised, safe and consistent,” explained Namupa Nengola by way of introduction.

Situated in the bustling township of Katutura in the heart of Windhoek, Taneta Investments is in an area where many informal traders eke out a living from trades ranging from auto repairs to hair salons and liquor outlets.

The company’s premises are at the Bakomoso incubation centre, a municipal initiative by the city of Windhoek that provides infrastructure for small-scale enterprises to carry out their business activities. Taneta’s business premises at the centre stands out as an exception to the usual services such as car washes and hairstylists. The small business is essentially an industrial processing unit, producing finished product from a raw material.

Namupa, who is chief executive officer of Taneta Investments, narrated how Pure Marula by Taneta is an extension of a centuries-old traditional knowledge system where Aawambo women would use the oil as a beautifying agent. The oil is protein-rich, so it is easily absorbed, which makes it a particularly effective skin and hair treatment.

A marula tree in Namibia.

The Marula tree, which goes by the scientific name Sclerocarya birrea, is a single-stemmed tree with a wide, spreading crown. The tree grows up to 18 metres tall, mostly in low altitudes and open woodlands and produces the marula fruit, a round-shaped fruit with a nut inside

According to Namupa, marula oil was also used for its cleansing properties when a newborn was introduced to the family.

Matty Nengola provides tours through the factory for visitors. Workers can be found separating marula from the chaff once it has been crushed, pressed, cooked and filtered. The process seems straightforward but strict production processes have to be adhered to in order to be certified for export to foreign markets such as the US, where the company recently sent a consignment of marula oil.

“Certification is a major challenge in our operations and we have to adhere to set standards as demanded by our customers,” Namupa Nengola explained.

“The US embassy through USAID have been strategic partners who helped bring our vision of accessing the US market to fruition,” Matty Nengola explained.

An important part of the company’s work is engaging and economically uplifting communities in which it harvests marula. Namupa Nengola explained how Taneta equips these women through additional training to improve their collection and processing skills, in order to supplement their indigenous knowledge.

The connection with community and tradition, as well as ensuring sustainability, runs deep in this small business.
“I was born under a Marula tree,” Namupa jokingly stated as she offered a historical description of her father’s homestead in northern Namibia, where the tree is abundant. Namupa said she had at least 10 marula trees in the homestead where she and her siblings grew up in.

The tree blossoms after the winter season and the fruit falls to the ground, where it slowly ripens.

“Because the tree is seasonal we have to plan our production process accordingly to ensure we have a constant supply to meet our customer demands,” Namupa said.

Planning production and communicating with clients has become a family affair.

“Our three daughters, Nelao, Taleni and Tala have streamlined our communication on the internet and perfected our product offering online to ensure that we gain maximum reward from our collective efforts,” Namupa said.

“We look forward to breaking into more markets on the African continent, Europe and the Americas.”