/ 5 July 2012

Swazi company sows kernel of local self-sufficiency

Marula kernels are laid out to dry before they are turned into oil for use in a range of beauty products.
Marula kernels are laid out to dry before they are turned into oil for use in a range of beauty products.

An innovative Swazi-owned company that turns the kernels from harvested marula fruit into high-grade oil for use in cosmetic products has been hailed by the United Nations for empowering local women.

Swazi Indigenous Products, which began as a charity project and is now on course to becoming a self-sustaining business, was one of 25 global winners of the UN Development Programme Equator Prize.

It was also handed the Marie Aminata Khan Award for women’s empowerment at last month’s Rio+20 environmental summit in Brazil – one of 10 special categories. The prize was collected by the company’s member services manager, Sindile Mamba.

About 2400 rural Swazi women, many of whom are elderly and caring for grandchildren who have been orphaned by HIV, earn money by selling the dried marula kernels that were previously discarded in the home-brew process.

The kernels are cold-pressed by a hand-operated corkscrew-style machine in a factory in Mpaka, east of Manzini, to produce oil that is stored, cooled and then either sold commercially in bulk or used in soaps, body lotions and skin and hair products under the brand Swazi Secrets.

The company’s carbon footprint is minimal owing to the lack of machinery used in processing, the fact that the dry cake left over from the nuts when the oil has been removed is sold to local farmers as animal feed and the dust-like residue is used as a natural exfoliating bead in a face wash.

The beauty products range – which includes a pure marula oil recently ranked by Elle magazine in the United Kingdom as “one of 70 best buys that will change your life” – is made entirely on the Mpaka premises where the items are also hand-packaged and labelled by the Swazi staff.

As well as being sold on site to tourists and distributed among local hotels and guesthouses, Swazi Secrets products are also exported to 20 European countries and to parts of Australia, Asia, North America and Southern Africa.

“We are 100% Swazi-made and as close as you can be to 100% natural,” said John Pearce, the brains behind the company and its executive director from its launch in 2004 until last year.

Pearce is now a project consultant responsible for marketing the products, having handed over the running of the company to a Swazi manager.

Liquidity crisis
He said that the company, which has 15 full-time Swazi staff, is 100% owned by the women from whom the marula kernels are sourced, with each of them given an option to buy a R10 membership share.

“The rural women own the company and it is the rural women who will be helping to decide how our $20 000 prize money from Rio will be spent at next week’s annual general meeting,” Pearce said.

Elizabeth Dlamini is one of those women. Unsure of her exact age, though she thinks she is in her 70s, Elizabeth cares for 14 grandchildren. She said the money she made from selling the kernels was a useful supplement to her government pension, which in the past year has regularly arrived late because of the Swazi state’s liquidity crisis.

“I used to plough cotton, but that has stopped and there used to be a coal mine nearby, but now it has closed down,” she said, adding that “it would be good to have more factories like this because it gives us money to spend on food and school fees.”

Own money
Swazi Indigenous Products began in 2004 with a $230 000 grant from the United States-based WK Kellogg Foundation, from which it has received a total of about $1-million in the past eight years.

A further $200 000 has come in smaller grants from other donors, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the UN Development Programme in Swaziland and the Union for Ethical Biotrade.

“We began as a 100% donor-funded organisation, but as we have progressed, we have started making our own money,” Pearce said.

“We had our best Christmas ever last December and sales in the first half of this year have already exceeded half of our annual expenditure [about R2.4-million], putting us on course to break even.”