Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
In a good year, Irene Chifunda (40) of Mandaza Village in the Ward 15, Mbire District in the northern part of the country can collect more than 20 bags of masau – a popular and sour-tasting edible indigenous wild fruit earning her some income to meet her households needs.
For her, Masau fruits (Ziziphus mauritiana) form part of her family’s diet and generate additional income by selling at local markets as far afield as Harare and Bulawayo.
The wild fruits found in Mudzi, Muzarabani and Mbire districts in the Lower Zambezi Valley are an important natural resource for the people in these dry and arid regions.
“For me masau are a form of insurance against hunger and poverty,” she said.
“During drought years they save us from hunger. We pick masau, matamba and shumha to survive.”
But this year, things are different despite the good rains that the country experienced.
“This year the masau yields are very low. Violent storms destroyed the masau tree flowers and I do not think I will even get five buckets,” Chifunda said.
“In good years, I can get more than 20 bags earning about US$100 or so. We use the income to buy maize or millet grain and other household items such as soap, clothes and cooking oil.
“I also use masau to raise money for ‘rounds’ (ISALs – Internal Savings and lending schemes) here at our village.”
The situation is dire for villagers in Muzarabani and Mbire districts.
“The masau fruits are very low this year. God didn’t smile on us . we wish we had adequate masau this year,” said Helen Mufundisi (33) of Mutinha 1 village, in the Madzomba area of Mbire close to the northern border with Mozambique.
“Our life here depends heavily on masau. We survive on selling masau. The yields this year are poor and I don’t know where we will get money to pay fees, to buy uniforms, clothes and food.
“Our ‘rounds’ schemes will be affected. Already people have nothing to pay for ma ‘rounds.’ Our lives are miserable without masau.”
The Madzomba area did not receive adequate rains and crop harvests are poor this season. People here attributed the low masau harvests to climate change – which is now bringing violent storms, affecting the flowering of the masau fruit.
“The drought here is severe and we did not get good rains. We have nothing in our fields. The poor masau yields make our life so tough here,” Mufundisi said.
“In a good year, I can get 20 buckets or more of masau fruit. We can sell a bucket at prices ranging from US$5 to $10 depending on availability. You can earn more from dried masau when you sell them late.”
In Zimbabwe, masau can be used as food, fodder and biomass fuel.
Local communities also use masau to treat a variety of ailments including flu, cold, malnutrition-related diseases, convulsions in children and indigestion.
“A lot of people here didn’t get a good harvest. The trees did not yield much for us and we fear that hunger will be intense this year,” said Loveness Guvheya (43) of Kanongo A village in Madzomba.
“This year we can’t talk much about masau. There is nothing to talk about. We rely on masau to support our husbands with income. We use the income to buy millet, sugar, salt, soap and to pay for fees for our children,” she said.
Guvheya said in a good year, she can get 50 (50kg) bags earning between US$500 and US$600 in a season.
“When I sell masau I can buy plates, cups, buckets, shoes, food and uniforms for my children,” she said.
“I can use the income from masau to survive for a year. This income is important for our survival here in Madzomba.”
Farmers in the drought prone Mbire district also grow cotton and sesame (runinga) which they sell to traders locally and in Mozambique.
“Sesame is a good crop and you can earn cash fast. But you cannot survive on income from cotton and sesame for a year. We need to supplement this with income from masau sales,” said Fanere Vhiri of Madzomba village.
In the Lower Zambezi Valley, most households become food insecure when masau yields are poor.
More than 80 percent of the households rely on collecting masau fruits as one of their main sources of food and income.
The fruits are mainly sold for cash, brewed into alcoholic beverage and barter traded against various commodities in the dry and arid regions, north of the country.
Indigenous fruits such as masau, mauyu (Adansonia digitata), mapfura (Sclerocarya Birrea), mazhanje (Uapaca kirkiana), matamba (Strychnos), nyii (Berchemia discolour), maroro (Annona senegalensis) and matufu (Vangueria Infausta) among others help cushion communities against the effects of climate change by providing a good source of minerals and vitamins during the dry season and in areas where rain-fed agriculture is not viable.
The country’s forests are rich in a wide variety of edible fruits that can be consumed as raw, snacks and dietary supplements, including trading them for income.
Some communities were now processing some of these fruits into tradable finished products that are important for household consumptions, such as beverages, beer, soups, jam, porridges, among others.
Wild fruits are an important resource for local communities in dry and arid regions.
Locals guard the trees jealously and when seeds sprout around their yards, they fence around it using thorny tree branches to help keep away domestic animals.
Traditional leaders often discourage people from cutting the masau fruit tree as it is an important source of food and income in lean seasons. Village heads also discourage traders and villagers from using crude methods of harvesting, such as shaking the branches and throwing objects to dislodge the fruits.
This, they say, damages trees and lowers yields in following seasons. Those who are caught cutting down trees, are often fined or banned from harvesting the fruit.
Zimbabwe is endowed with many indigenous fruits which are distributed in different parts of the country.
The Forestry Commission often runs campaigns that have helped local communities to recognise the essential role played by forest fruit products in people’s livelihoods.
This has helped the communities to change their attitudes towards the forests.
“We have to guard our remaining forests and use masau and other wild fruits to survive the problems that are coming with climate change,” said Vhiri.
“Indigenous fruits are important cash plants for us. We also use them to improve our nutrition and in times of famine, they are an important food backup.
“Masau have many functions and are very important in reducing hunger and poverty in our community.”
Masau fruit can fetch about US$20 per 50-kg bag in cities such as Harare, Gweru, Mutare and Bulawayo. Local communities also use it to barter, exchanging the fruit for maize, chicken, clothes and goats.
The masau fruit are also found in neighbouring Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.
“The national production of masau in Zimbabwe is estimated at 200 000 tonnes per year,” Hendrex Phiri, a researcher into African fruits, was quoted saying in a report, a few years ago.
“Unfortunately, most of this undergoes post-harvest losses, with over 60 percent of it having to be discarded. Other problems are poor marketing and inadequate harvest and processing techniques, as well as lack of strategic product development for value-addition to fruits. It is a shame that local producers do not get more support to develop this very promising sector.”
But things have changed and Bindura University of Science Education (BUSE) now runs the Masawu Value Addition Project to harness wild fruits through value addition.
Zimbabwe now has the Mwenezi Marula/Mapfura Processing and Value Addition Plant that was commissioned last year in Masvingo Province. The projects have greatly improved livelihoods in the dry and arid regions of the country.