Indigenous Fruit Trees in Southern Africa


Michel Laverdière[1]


This paper looks at the status and contribution of Indigenous Fruit Trees (IFTs) to food security in southern Africa, and reviews and assesses the physical situation of IFTs in the Miombo Woodland. It contains information on use and trade of IFTs, and on biological developments in domestication and dissemination. It covers processing and marketing and explores avenues for the future of IFTs.

Some 40% of the total land area of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region of 682 million ha is covered by natural forests and woodlands. Ethnobotanical surveys have explored use of and problems related to IFTs. Vegetation mapping is available in all SADC countries and covers dominant species, including IFTs. The majority of countries with Miombo Woodland have National or Management Forest Inventories. Some IFTs are also recorded during this process and correlations can be made to estimate fruit production.

Domestication priority species are: Uapaca kirkiana, Parinari curatellifolia, and Strychnos cocculoides. Other species in drier areas are also important for domestication such as Sclerocarya birrea and Adansonia digitata. Studies show that many IFTs are easy to propagate by seed and vegetatively. There is increasing awareness about the importance of IFTs from the Miombo for their contribution to household nutrition and income.

Currently, no documentation exists on which the formulation of sustainable forest management plans for IFT extraction can be based. Research programmes should emphasize this aspect. Little is available on production potentials of IFTs in natural habitat or under cultivation. There is some information on numbers and mass of fruit per tree in respect of a few popular species. To secure markets, it will be important to gradually replace “wild tree” fruit harvesting with IFT orchards. This could lead to an outgrower scheme approach being implemented.

Through collaboration with the private sector and sustainable management of IFTs, the future looks promising for smallholders of the Miombo.


Food Security is the primary goal of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the core aim of programmes coordinated by the Sub-Regional Office for East and Southern Africa (SAFR). The Forestry Division of FAO also endeavours to provide opportunities for access to food. That is why this Paper examines the status and contribution of Indigenous Fruit Trees to Food Security in Southern Africa.

Discussions and developmental plans on the use of IFTs have been at the forefront of initiatives on Non-Timber Forest Products in Southern Africa, especially in the last decade. A number of national institutions and regional organisations have been developing programmes aimed at assessing, domesticating, and disseminating selected IFTs. These organisations have also worked with the private sector and communities to improve the processing and marketing of traditional and new products from fruits, which is an important factor in motivating farmers to conserve - and even plant - IFTs, for income and food security.

FAO's involvement in this issue dates back to 2002, when it supported a conference in Namibia on the “Domestication and Commercialisation of IFTs in the SADC Region”. In 2001, it organised a 2-week seminar on domestication of IFTs for 30 professionals from Southern and Eastern Africa. An FAO Technical Co-operation Project (TCP) on domestication in northern Namibia also began in January 2002. It has been shown that IFTs can often play a role in alleviating extreme poverty, and provide the much-needed vitamins and proteins, as well as cash to poor population groups.

This Paper reviews the physical situation of IFTs in the Southern African region, concentrating on countries with Miombo Woodland. It also describes the present use and trade of IFTs, and biological developments in domestication and dissemination. It covers processing and marketing and explores avenues for the future of IFTs for the smallholders and countries involved.

1. Southern African vegetation

Natural forests and woodlands of the SADC region cover 40% of the total land area of 682 million ha. Woodland cover ranges from 0.6% in South Africa to 72.7% in Mozambique.

Natural woody vegetation types of the region range from moist forests to semi-arid savannah woodlands, arid shrubs, thorn steppe and coastal forests. Despite their importance to rural livelihoods in particular, and SADC national economies in general, IFTs are being increasingly lost to agricultural expansion and over exploitation through harvesting.

2. Forestry inventories and surveys

2.1 Inventory of useful plants

A SADC report presents the results of an inventory of 300 forest plants, listing useful plants based on their economic and ecological importance. Some 142 are categorized as food plants of which 61 are IFTs bearing popular, edible fruit.

Community involvement, management of resources and governance

Throughout Southern Africa, community involvement in the management of natural resources is recognised as an important component of preserving biodiversity. Valuable indigenous trees are currently mismanaged not only in the Miombo, but also in the semi-arid regions of Southern Africa. For example, the status of the Marula (Sclerocarya birrea) population and gender around two neighbouring villages in northern Namibia was assessed. The area studied was stocked with 1 tree per ha. There were more males than females at 15 - 20 cm dbh[2] but more females than males in the 40 - 80 cm dbh range. This was attributed to selective elimination of individuals that failed to fruit. The study also reported lower numbers of smaller individual plants. The findings imply that the resource is not sustainable under current management practices in Namibia.

Fruit trees fulfil a vital role in rural communities because the fruit is consumed seasonally. The various fruits also provide cash to families who sell them. Initiatives to involve communities in the cultivation and production of these fruits in small-scale farms have begun. As the trees are adapted to these environments, the potential to contribute to family income and welfare is high.

A systematic approach to bring some of these high value trees into wider cultivation by small-scale farmers is a strategic goal of leading regional and national developmental organisations and institutions involved in IFT domestication.

2.2 Surveys in the Miombo Woodland

Ethnobotanical surveys done between 1987 and 1995 indicate that over 60 IFT species are eaten and sold in Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. These surveys explored IFT use, and identified domestication problems experienced by farmers. Following the surveys, participatory workshops were held to understand user and stakeholder preferences, constraints and technological opportunities.

In order of priority, farmers based their preferences for particular IFTs on:

1) Food security
2) Taste of fruit
3) Marketability of fresh fruits
4) Ability to preserve fruit for storage and later use
5) Suitability of fruits for processing into various marketable products
6) Availability/occurrence in the area

Based on their findings, workshop participants drew up strategies to enable farmers to domesticate and market the species preferred. It was also found that detailed information was severely lacking concerning total population per individual species, biology, propagation and field management, market potentials and farmers’ preferences for the different IFTs. These constraints are severely hampering commercialisation, wider exploitation and cultivation. Information provided on IFTs in the areas surveyed had been subjective, with many farmers merely indicating that the number of trees was diminishing near villages. Reports highlight that women and children have to travel long distances (more than 5 km) to collect fruit.

Most reports also indicate that IFT populations are reducing over time due to encroachment of villages and towns as well as arable farming. No censuses have been taken for individual species. The only documented record was in Botswana by Taylor and Moss in 1983, which roughly quantified per hectare a wide range of indigenous plants with economic potential, including a number of IFTs.

Vegetation mapping is available in all the countries under the study and covers dominant species as well as woodlands in general. Natural regeneration of IFTs is low with a large difference in relative occurrence and numbers per unit area showing more mature trees than seedlings and saplings. Generally, the methods used to establish the inventories employ systematic rather than stratified sampling and often exclude non-timber forest products.

Different species are selected as a priority for development from different communities and countries according to availability and range of uses. The species most preferred by farmers take the lead in terms of scientific research and commercialisation efforts with, other species receiving less attention.

The top three IFTs preferred by farmers in the World Forestry Centre (ICRAF) Project for domestication and improvement in the Miombo are:

2.3 Other inventories that may bring more information on IFTs

The majority of the Miombo countries have some kind of National Forest Inventory and many intensive inventories of smaller areas for the purposes of investment in or management of the resource.

These inventories usually record the number of commercial species by diameter at breast height (dbh) and stem's height, thus producing stock and volume tables, and sometimes regeneration data. However, they may also record useful information for IFTs. For instance, information was derived from a wood fuel inventory done in Mozambique. Some fruit species have been singled out and we find that the majority of Sclerocarya are in the dbh class of 20 cm and more while Parinari is in the dbh class of 10 cm and less. It is also clear that there are many Sclerocarya but very few Parinari. Regeneration figures show Sclerocarya and Vangueria but no Parinari.

This type of analysis indicates the possibility of deducing the stocking of mature IFTs and sometimes regeneration of species used also for timber. If one uses an average fruit productivity level per tree, it would then be possible to estimate potential fruit production for natural forests. Such an attempt was made for a forest in Zimbabwe. For Shinziophyton (ex-Ricinodendron) rautanenii, it estimated total fruit production per year at 325 kg for 50 trees ranging from 6 to 70 cm in dbh.

This "dual purpose" technique of using the results of a classical timber inventory ignores the incidence of homestead trees, which have to be inventoried as "trees outside forests".

3. IFTs in Semi-arid areas of Southern Africa

As discussed earlier, there are other promising IFT species from semi-arid areas, which have been included in the domestication lists of Botswana, Tanzania, Malawi, Namibia, and South Africa. They are Adansonia digitata, Sclerocarya birrea, Schinziophyton rautanenii, Vitex mombassae, Anisophyllea boehmii, Azanza garckeana, Vangueria infausta, and Strychnos spinosa. When requested to so, farmers in isolated areas chose these species because of their comparative advantages in terms of abundance, value of products or adaptability to local environment.

Sclerocarya birrea is not in the top three in the Miombo woodlands but is a very important IFT in the semi-arid areas of Southern Africa. Its very sweet and tasty fruit is enjoyed by millions of rural habitants. In South Africa and Botswana, a considerable amount of work has been done on selection, evaluation and vegetative propagation, including tissue culture. Significant developments in processing and commercialising products have also been made in Namibia and Botswana. Products marketed include edible nuts, jams, jellies, candies (sweets), soap, salad/cooking oil and high value cosmetic products derived from oils.

4. Research efforts on IFTs.


Studies on propagation within the Miombo areas have shown that many IFTs are easy to propagate both vegetatively and by seed. Evaluation of over 25 species under field conditions shows that many of these species are capable of bearing fruit within 1 to 8 years after planting. According to farmers, the main hindrances to domestication and cultivation of the prioritised species in the Miombo ecozones are their long pre-bearing period, lack of knowledge on how to propagate them, and sex differentiation at early stages of plant development. Priority is being given to studies on seedling production, vegetative propagation (budding and grafting) and farmer’s adoption of these species and their management. Grafting has been found to overcome problems of long pre-bearing periods.

Developmental organisations envisage that improved cultivars of IFTs with acceptable fruit bearing precocity and desirable fruit traits will create the necessary incentives for their cultivation. Activities in market research, economics of production, fruit product development and farmer empowerment in fruit processing are under way in most countries of Southern Africa.


There is an increasing awareness on the importance of IFTs from the Miombo for their contribution to the household nutrition and income. Many of the species evaluated have been shown to be very good sources for daily requirements of minerals and vitamin C. This is a significant advantage as cultivation of exotic fruit trees requires more inputs and can be very expensive for rural people.


A holistic approach to domestication and commercialisation of IFTs as tools for small business development is being tested in South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. After selection of popular IFTs, product development and consumer test marketing are undertaken. Products such as jams, dried fruit rolls and fruit nectar are found to be of high market value, but the actual marketing in volume has proven to be difficult for most small-scale producers. Developing niche markets for products and uniting under co-operatives are two areas which provide opportunity for improvement.

Sustainable harvesting

A search for information and documented experiences concerning community-driven resource assessments from the Southern African region and elsewhere yielded little practical data for the formulation of sustainable forest management plans, a crucial component of sustainable harvesting of non-timber products at community level. Most conventional management methods tend to ignore the communities’ resource priorities, cater to a limited resource base and exclude important socio-economic and resource tenure issues. In the few assessments done, no specific quantities were mentioned in relation to area covered. This is a critical gap in the information required to determine management procedures to allow sustainable harvesting of IFT products. Therefore, it is timely that research and development institutions emphasise this aspect in their funding programs.

5. Production potentials of selected IFTs in their natural habitats

Very few publications are available on production potentials of IFTs in their natural habitat or under cultivation. Some studies on production levels of selected species have been done in Botswana. The most productive in terms of quantity (numbers and mass of fruit per tree) is Sclerocarya birrea while Adansonia digitata is the least productive and lightest in mass. Vangueria infausta is the poorest for handling because of its papery, thin skin. Strychnos cocculoides has a shelf life of four to six weeks without refrigeration. Its hard shell makes this fruit the best for long shelf life and road transportation.

Conclusion: the future of Indigenous Fruit Trees for Food Security

Southern Africa is endowed with a wealth of multipurpose trees especially in the Miombo Woodland ecological region. Many of these tree species produce abundant fruits, which are used by the local communities to a greater or lesser degree.

Smallholders have made increasing efforts, sometimes assisted by Government and NGOs, to develop and standardize the fruits and their products and increase sales in existing and new markets.

The main problems facing this activity are the lack of objective knowledge in the quantity and quality of the fruit resource. This can be partly solved by adding criteria to planned classical forest inventories and surveys in order to capture vital information on IFTs, such as the size of the canopy or density of flowering and fruiting, and number of productive branches.

Furthermore, there must be well-targeted financial and capacity building assistance to smallholders to stimulate the creation of business at individual and co-operative levels. This will enable communities to improve their production, harvesting, transport, and processing capacities.

Experience shows that there is a danger that producers all bring the same products to the market, thus creating a strong supply with very low revenue per unit. That is why there is much need for governments to develop policies to enable funding of marketing strategies to encourage the sharing of market intelligence among groups. In this way, producers would be motivated to find product niches which give them comparative advantage.

Except in South Africa, IFT domestication is still in its infancy in Southern Africa where most IFTs come from woodland. In order to keep markets, therefore, it will be essential to develop IFT orchards, which will gradually take the place of "wild tree" fruit harvesting. This will guarantee a steady supply of fruit products to consumers, traders and processing industries.

In some instances, this could lead to an outgrower scheme approach that has proven successful worldwide for other commodities such as coffee.

The future of IFTs looks promising for smallholders if they are encouraged to consider IFTs as a serious venture and if the private sector gets involved on a sustainable basis.


Laverdière M and, Mateke S.M. Physical Situation of Indigenous Fruit Trees in Southern Africa Region TBF, FAO 2002 Harare

Laverdière M., 2001. Proceedings of the Regional Training Seminar. The Propagation and Dissemination of Indigenous Fruit Trees in East and Southern Africa. May 2001. Harare, Zimbabwe

Mateke, S.M. 2002. Results of eight years studies on propagation, growth and production levels of four indigenous fruit trees in the wild and under cultivation in Botswana. Regional Agroforestry Conference “Agroforestry Impacts on Livelihoods in Southern Africa: Putting research into practice”. May 2002. Warmbaths, South Africa.

[1] Agent de conservation des forêts, FAO Subregional Office for Southern Africa, Harare, Zimbabwe. Email:
[2] diameter at breast height.