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Namibia's green gold17

Many of Namibia's plants contain ingredients that have medicinal, cosmetic or nutritional value. In recent years there has been a drive to commercialise some of them to generate additional income, especially for women in rural areas who are traditionally the custodians of plants and best know their uses. Exports of the plant products have benefited from growing global demands for sustainable natural ingredients, particularly in medicinal and cosmetic products. As a result, trade in various indigenous natural products has expanded from raw products at informal markets to products specially prepared and packaged for the national and international markets.

Challenges in this sector include accessing international markets, maintaining sustainability and supply of the products, and improving the expertise of producers, processors and local product developers. At the forefront of Namibia's trade in indigenous natural products are various plant oils – marula, !nara, ximenia and commiphora – dried devil's claw and the morama bean. Several other species have high commercial potential, for example, Kalahari melon-seed oil and manketti oil.

6.29 !Nara

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!Nara (Acanthosicyos horridus) is a thorny bush that bears melons and is endemic to the Namib Desert. The melons are large, round and pale green with spines. Inside the fruit is a mass of watery, yellowish pulp, which is aromatic and sweet, and contains many nutritious seeds. The plant is restricted to sandy desert and is usually found at the base of dunes; the greatest concentration of !nara is in the delta of the Kuiseb River. The !nara is extremely valuable to Topnaar (or ≠Aonin) people residing in the area. Products from !nara are largely traded within Namibia. Seeds extracted from the fruit are sold for consumption or to local manufacturers who produce a cold-pressed fine virgin oil which is used in a variety of natural cosmetic and food products.


Photo: R & N Crawford (

6.30 Devil's claw

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Devil's claw is the most established commercial natural product of indigenous plants in Namibia. Harpagophytum procumbens and H. zeyheri grow mostly in deep Kalahari sands in many parts of southern Africa as a perennial prostrate vine emerging from a taproot with lateral storage tubers. It is these storage tubers that have the highest concentrations of harpagocide, the compound responsible for the plant's well-known efficacy in treating arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Namibia is the largest supplier of devil's claw to the international market.


Photo: D Cole


Photo: D Cole

6.31 Marula

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The marula (Sclerocarya birrea) is a large, single-stemmed tree with grey, mottled bark and a wide, spreading crown, iconic of the open woodlands in northern Namibia. It is a hardy survivor of very dry periods. The tree produces fruit about the size of a plum, which has a leathery skin that turns yellow when ripe. Traditionally, marula fruit is used to make juice 'oshinwa' and a fermented drink. Oil is also extracted from dried kernels. Nowadays, kernels are sold to cooperatives or private buyers and cold pressed to make marula oil. Most cold-pressed virgin marula oil is exported to Europe for the personal care and cosmetic industry.


Photo: D Cole


Photo: Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)


Photo: D Cole

6.32 Sour plum

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Sour plum (Ximenia americana) trees and shrubs occur extensively across northern Namibia. The seed oil has long been used as a traditional emollient and for hair care. It is also used to soften leather and the San reportedly use it to oil and maintain their bows. Ximenia oil has attracted interest due to its anti-ageing properties, and has been shown to be an effective treatment against dry skin. Namibia is the main producer and exporter of ximenia oil, but production has been difficult to sustain, as fruiting is sensitive to frosts and bushfires, among other factors.


Photo: T Figueira


Photo: D Cole


Photo: D Cole

6.33 Omumbiri

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Locally known as omumbiri, Commiphora wildii produces the preferred resin that Himba women traditionally use for perfume. The trees are found locally in Kunene Region, and women have been harvesting exuded amber-coloured resin from these plants for generations. The first commercial harvest of resin was sold on international markets in 2007. The essential oil is extracted locally at a processing facility in Opuwo, and is then sold to local and regional cosmetics manufacturers, and to international buyers. The supply chain in Namibia is well organised and is managed through the conservancy and community forest programmes.


Photo: D Cole


Photo: D Cole


Photo: D Cole

6.34 Morama bean

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Also known as the gemsbok marama or morama bean, Tylosema esculentum is a high-value perennial species that produces a large woody tuber below the ground and a prostrate vine above. The plant grows in sandy tropical regions of eastern, central and southern Africa. The seeds (or beans) are an excellent source of high-quality protein, and have potential to improve nutrition in Namibia and other arid countries. Products from the morama bean include cooking oil, cosmetic oil, butter, high-protein flour and canned morama beans.


Photo: P Chimwamurombe


Photo: P Chimwamurombe


Photo: P Chimwamurombe