/ 19 September 2022

World going nuts for Eswatini farm’s macadamias

Macadamia Farmer Using Smart Agriculture 4 Big
Macadamia_farmer_using_smart_agriculture. Photo: Supplied

Trees along the runway sway in the gentle, mid-morning breeze, as if in competition for elusive rays of a sun that is poking from between clouds as the plane makes its steady descent.

Below, at the edge of a forest in the rural area of Tubungu, near Matsapha and some 15km from Manzini, shiny roofs reflect from a cluster of buildings arranged in parallel rows.

Once out of the airport, a signpost at the side of the road points to the African Christian College, home to the Tree of Life project, the only one of its kind in Eswatini.

On the 80-hectare college campus, some 50 hectares are under macadamia nuts, with the rest used for the academic campus and staff housing, as well as for general agricultural use, growing food for the students and generating extra income.

The project breathes life into the campus, which is situated in a water-scarce area with extreme weather patterns — hot summers and cold winters — and relies on income from the macadamias to operate.

According to farm and campus operations director Sydney Mhango, summer temperatures sometimes shoot well above 30°C and pose a threat to the macadamia trees, particularly in late summer and autumn.


“The macadamia trees start flowering just as we enter winter and that’s a critical time for the trees to have enough water, while the temperatures should not be in the high extremes,” he explained.

While temperatures are marginal for producing macadamia trees, the local soil, which had been stripped of nutrients, was not originally suitable at all. That was until the macadamia project started revitalising it. 

The Tree of Life project is anchored on climate-smart agriculture, which aims at helping boost biodiversity and nourishes the soil that can restore the overall health of an ecosystem.

“The past two seasons had good rainfall, but the only challenge we had was dealing with soil erosion and we have plaster sand in our orchard. When there is too much rain, we experience tractors getting stuck in the orchards because of too much water in the ground. It is a miracle that we are producing quality macadamia with the type of soil we have,” Mhango said.

Despite a recent drought that hit production, macadamias produced at Tree of Life are high quality. The entire crop is exported.

Macadamia_farmer_using_smart_agriculture. Photo: Supplied

The project also had a bad year in 2017 and only exported about 60 tons as opposed to 135 tons and 130 tons in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The nuts proved a life-saver during Covid-19, bringing in crucial income during the pandemic.

Macadamia trees thrive in deep, well-drained soils that have a PH of between 5.0  and 6.5, and rainfall of between 60 and 120 inches annually.

According to Mhango, the name for the project is drawn from the college’s former status as a pastoral training centre.

It is also anchored in the restoration of the environment —  which is being impacted by climate change. However, there is a recognition at Tree of Life that climate change itself is not “natural” and needs rectifying, and that African communities, as anywhere in the world, can make the difference.

“Recognising that the eco issues threatening us are not external, we are playing our part in seeking to provide a solution through regenerative agriculture on a significant scale through the Tree of life project,” Mhango said. 

“By growing the premium flavoured macadamia through smart agriculture we are helping mitigate climatic challenges such as the emerging and irregular phenomena of weather, erratic rains, prolonged drought, flooding and shorter growing seasons.”

Key to the project is rejuvenating the soil.

“We shred all the branches that have been cut off during pruning and spread them under the trees as mulch. Since our trees are planted once, we do not use crop rotation methods like in the gardens,” he said.

“We check the soil every two years, monitor which nutrients are present or missing … In the future, we would like to try using cover crops and see how that will help boost biodiversity.”

The project’s senior agri-business manager, Peter Setimela, agrees that the mulching of the orchards has helped. Other climate-smart solutions such as the installation of probes to determine water schedules and the use of microjets for irrigation instead of sprinklers have also helped mitigate the climactic challenges.

Adding to that, the Tree of Life has a harm-reduction approach —  a crucial, first step on the path towards creating an overall system that adds to nature’s richness.

To ensure zero chemical use, no insecticides are applied to the plants. Instead, an integrated pest management system is used to keep the “trees of life” healthy.

“We scout weekly to monitor problematic insects. We prune our trees every year so that insects do not create homes in our trees. When there is too much foliage, insects can start living in the trees,” Setimela explained.

Mhango said that at Tree of Life, they are still learning the best ways to build healthy new topsoil.

“We have plenty to learn, we are not fully there yet, but we are fully committed,” he stated.

Mhango says the future is bright for macadamias in the area, with more farmers witnessing the success of Tree of Life and embracing climate-smart agriculture.

This article was first published by bird.