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October 31, 2010

Macadamia nuts are a lifeline for black farmers in South Africa

by Sally Williams

Macadamia nuts are expensive because it takes five to 12 years for a macadamia tree to produce nuts (a good tree will still be producing nuts 40 years on); and the shell is so hard that it will break domestic nutcrackers.

The first commercial orchard of macadamia trees, which are native to Australia, was planted in the early 1880s in New South Wales. Australia is still the world’s largest producer of macadamias, accounting for more than 40 per cent of world exports. Other leading producers are South Africa and Hawaii.

Bush pigs are among the few animals with jaws strong enough to crack the nuts; monkeys simply eat them from the tree when the shells are soft. But humans require cracking factories.

The other obstacle is that harvesting, which takes place in late autumn to spring, is typically done by hand, and pickers have to wait until ripe nuts fall to the floor. Mechanised shaking machines (used for pecans and almonds, for example), which dislodge nuts from the tree to speed up the process, cannot be used with macadamias, as the nuts mature on the tree at different rates. So first the macadamia nuts are husked (like coconuts, the nut is encased within two layers) and then air-dried in the shade for at least two weeks to reduce the moisture content and allow the natural oil to develop. Once the nuts are in the cracking factory, the challenge is getting them out whole, which involves careful drying at 40-43C to further reduce the moisture content, making the shell brittle and easier to crack.

Finally, the nuts are sorted into 'styles’ or grades of quality. 'Style 4’ is broken pieces and 'style 0’ is the premium: glistening and ivory-coloured, big like a brazil nut, but somehow a more satisfying mouthful to crunch. Macadamia nuts are high in fat – up to 80 per cent oil – but it is the right sort, and they are a good source of protein and fibre.

Macadamia nuts are oddly under-used in Britain. We import 60,000 tons of cashews, but only 700-800 tons of macadamias. But one company, Eat Natural, has been an enthusiastic supporter since its launch in 1997. Set up by the childhood friends Preet Grewal and Praveen Vijh, the company has built a £30 million business out of healthy cereal bars. One of its debut bars was the macadamia, brazil and apricot, in 1998. The company now imports 50 tons a year from South Africa. Eat Natural is also doing something more far-reaching: it is working with black farmers in rural South Africa to help them run their own macadamia farms.

Jill and Alan Whyte are the owners of Springfield Farm near Louis Trichardt in Limpopo, the northernmost province of South Africa, where they have been since 1976. The Whytes’ output is prodigious: 130 tons a year. They first started growing and exporting macadamias 17 years ago (plus lychees, avocados and pecans) on their 980 acres. They also co-own three cracking factories, as Green Farms Nut Company.

This is post-apartheid South Africa, where the injustice of racial discrimination institutionalised by apartheid laws since 1948 is slowly changing. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, black people have the right to claim back the farmlands that the white farmers took off them. Land-claims have targeted the whole of the Limpopo province. (This includes Springfield Farm. 'A claim has been put to the government,’ confirms Alex Whyte, the marketing director of Green Farms and Jill and Alan’s son, 'but we haven’t heard anything for eight years, so we don’t know what’s going to happen.’)

Like many of the 250 or so white farmers in the area, the Whytes have built a lucrative livelihood thanks to the rich soil and the area’s microclimate – the nearby Soutpansberg mountains act as a rain magnet – and the Lebuvu Valley gets nearly 79in of rainfall a year, the most in South Africa.

But since 2008 Green Farms has donated £92,000 to help 14 local black farmers. They have also worked with Fairtrade to set up social and community initiatives for the workers on their farm such as a creche, basic computer skills and dressmaking.

'You can’t live in a gilded cage,’ Jill says. 'You can’t live on a great farm and expect other people to be poor around you. You have to find a way of creating jobs and helping them to be a part of the industry. This area has been earmarked as an ideal area for macadamia growing – why shouldn’t all farmers be a part of this?’

The first white people settled here in 1836.

The nearby town is named after Louis Trichardt, a Voortrekker leader who arrived here from the Eastern Cape (British at the time, but founded by the Dutch), in search of the promised land. He set up a large family and cattle compound and had dominion over the indigenous people living in Venda, a small area in the north-eastern corner of the Soutpansberg.

Today’s land claims are not the end of the story after all. 'Everywhere you go in Venda there’s plenty of land but they’re not utilising it because they don’t have the resources, technical skills or the business know-how,’ Jill says. 'You’re dealing with very humble people who don’t have a great deal of education, don’t have collateral and don’t qualify for loans themselves.’

Mismanagement and failed farms have been part of the land claims story. 'We felt there had to be a more sustainable way of helping emerging farmers.’

In 2008 the Vhembe Co-Op of black farmers, a collective with about 350 members set up in 2003 and managed by Alfred Nndwammbi, applied for development funds of R2 million (£180,000) from the European Union to establish macadamia farms, which was agreed on the condition that they worked with a local partner. (The project was the idea of Trade and Investment Limpopo and the South African Department of Agriculture.) Nndwammbi and Jill now work together, overseeing the project, buying trees and offering workshops in such skills as tree-pruning and control of pests such as sting bugs. The 14 beneficiaries were chosen from within the co-op. 'We were looking for guys who really have their heart in farming and are prepared to do what it takes,’ Jill says. There is a small commercial interest: the Whytes hope the farmers will use their cracking factories. But mostly, it is an altruistic venture.

The change to black farmers is obvious when you visit Venda. Formerly a segregated 'homeland’ area for blacks during apartheid, the land is still divided into zones A, B and C. Where once there was rough bushland and people camped in shacks, there is now a small cluster of clay houses painted bright colours and, in one area, cultivated strips neatly planted with 3,120 macadamia trees. 'If you were black you were not supported,’ says David Magwema, 53, a teacher, farmer and the father of seven children. 'We were made to work on the farms. But now we are in a new democracy and they [the government] are trying to say, let everyone work for himself.’ Magwema was given permission by the government to occupy this land in 1995, and first tried growing mangoes, unsuccessfully. He joined the Vhembe Co-Op in 2003. 'They said switch to macadamias. They will give you better money.’ (The trees should start producing enough nuts to sell in 2013. In the meantime Magwema is living off his teaching salary.)

Half an hour’s drive away we walk with Samuel Makhaga around his 25 acres. 'We got this land in 1995 after we were free,’ he says, 'We planted maize, then mango trees but they caused us a lot of problems because we don’t know where to market them.’ His macadamia trees are looking healthy. 'The problem is water. That is why you see me carrying all these containers,’ he says, holding up jerry cans and buckets. 'I’ve got a bore hole at home’ – a 10-minute walk away – 'and I have to carry water.’ More specifically, 1,700 gallons a week, because young macadamia trees are very thirsty and this is the dry season. 'If there were a borehole here, things would be very smooth.’ Makhaga is 70, but upbeat. 'When you have something growing, life is improving.’ (Eat Natural has since donated £3,000 for boreholes. 'We are trying to do more and more to help farmers, and by giving money directly to the farmers we know they can spend it at source and we can have a direct impact on the farming community,’ Grewal says.)

Back in the Whytes’ kitchen, Gregory shows us just how versatile macadamias can be.

'People tend to think of them as a snack and probably just have them straight out of the packet, but there is macadamia oil, macadamia butter, and you can use them as a substitute for pine nuts and make a macadamia pesto, because the texture is lovely and crunchy and sweet.’ She continues, 'I think we’re probably a bit scared of them. If you’re paying quite a lot of money for them, you don’t want to do something wrong.’

Gregory pan-fries macadamia nuts with fennel and cumin, then sprinkles them over a salad, tossed in macadamia oil. Minutes later, she is grinding them up to thicken a sauce for a fish curry made from tomatoes, garlic, fresh ginger, tamarind and coconut milk. The Magimix grinder fitting is also used for pudding: gluten-free chocolate brownies made with ground macadamias rather than flour and served with lovely tart sour cherries. It wasn’t exactly a light option, but it was delicious.


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