The Tsonga people of South Africa and Mozambique have used the marula oil as a moisturising body lotion for women and also as a massage oil for babies. In the past, women used Marula oil rather than water to clean themselves.
Marula oil is a relative newcomer to the world of luxury skincare.
Marula trees grow across southern Africa and in parts of east and west Africa. The oil is extracted from the hard kernels of its fruits. Until the late 1990s, the sole major commercial use of marula oil was for the South African cream liqueur, Amarula.
That changed when a women’s cooperative in Namibia began to develop the oil for use in the cosmetics industry. Within a year it was discovered by the Body Shop; by 2011, the company was using it in more than 140 products, sourced exclusively from Namibia, according to a case study by the World Intellectual Property Organisation.
With higher levels of antioxidants and omega 9 acid than argan oil, another skincare superstar, marula oil provides some of the best natural protection against environmental damage and free radicals that lead to early ageing.
Marula oil will soon be commercially produced and marketed in east Africa, thanks to Philip Leakey, a Kenyan farmer with 6,000 marula trees growing naturally on his 3,000 acre farm. He is planting a further 50,000.
Leakey and his business-partner and wife, Katy, have so far produced more than 6,000 litres of marula oil on their farm, Ol Kerii, in Kenya, selling it in the US through the Leakey Collection, a fair trade company they built to promote entrepreneurial opportunities that complement the environment and culture of rural Kenyans.
This year, they will launch new marula oil products at a lower price for the east African market.
Most mass-produced marula oils are obtained by crushing the kernel, sometimes together with the nut and flesh, and extracting the oil using heat and chemicals. However, this process destroys the oil’s natural antioxidant properties. To avoid this, Leakey has built a modular, mobile cold-press system that extracts the oil. His team cuts the kernels by hand first to remove the rancid ones.
To date, much of the selection of marula trees by international agricultural organisations has been for fruit size, to produce more pulp, rather than for kernel size. “Scientific selection for pulp is the opposite to what you want for oil, we’ve found on the farm,” Leakey says. He is now selecting trees based on the size of the kernel.
Concessions of trees have been carefully selected from across east Africa so that nuts are ripening at different times of the year in different areas. Harvesting is spread over 10 months, which makes labour, production chains and storage easier to manage.
Ol Kerii’s marula oil gives regular work to about 800 people, 95% of them women. There is no factory, no clocking-in and clocking-out. Workers, once trained, can do as many (or as few) hours as they want, so it doesn’t interrupt the demands of daily life. But pay-scales rise in line with how much work you do, to incentivise production.
For a full day, an average worker might take home (£6.40). According to the UN, rural wages in Kenya usually vary between 3,000 and 9,000 shillings – -104 – a month.
Leakey believes that marula oil could develop into a multibillion-dollar business, and estimates that the Ol Kerii business alone could create work for 10,000 people. The communities currently hacking down marula trees to make way for farmland, he fears, are missing out on a huge opportunity.
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