In Mozambique, we learned about something different: soapmaking.
What does soapmaking have to do with the environment? If you’ve ever read the label on a bar of soap, you know that soaps can be made of many different things. Many soaps are made with palm oil. In Costa Rica, at the beginning of our trip, we saw miles of palm plantations. Although palm oil can be sustainably harvested, many palm plantations contribute to deforestation of rainforests.
So we were excited to meet with Ana Alecia Lyman in Mozambique, who talked with us about other naturally harvested oils that can be used in soaps.
Initially, she wasn’t planning to make cosmetic products. With her business partner, Alan Schwartz, she was looking at how forest resources could be used. Their goal was to provide a new source of income for the community by using forest resources — sustainably — to make a finished product.
They considered using oils for bio-fuels. But the value of fuel was $1.50 per liter, versus $20 per liter for cosmetic products. Since the goal was to bring money back to the community, they decided the higher-value product would be more beneficial.
Bio Oleos, their company, makes soaps, body oils and body butters. They use natural oils, like coconut and sunflower. And they use others you’ve probably never heard of, like mafura.
What is mafura?
Mafura (also spelled mafurra) is a tree naturally found in Mozambique and other countries in southern Africa. Mafura fruit is heated to produce a rich oil.
Mozambique used to sell a lot of mafura oil to other countries. These sales, or exports, peaked in the 1950s. But exports of mafura were hurt by Mozambique’s war for independence (from 1964 to 1974), followed by a civil war (from 1977 to 1992). After 25 years of war, Mozambique’s mafura trade was almost nonexistent. The loss of this trade meant a loss of income, to the country and to local communities.
Now, if mafura can be used in a wider market, it would be good for the Mozambique economy. And, mafura could potentially take the place of palm oil in some products. This would be better for the environment, because mafura trees already exist naturally. In contrast, trees for palm oil are often planted in areas where rainforest has been cut down, in large palm plantations.
These kinds of monoculture plantations (where only one type of plant is grown) aren’t good for wildlife. In Costa Rica, we saw how palm plantations cut off migration corridors for certain animals, such as monkeys, isolating them in smaller areas and making them more vulnerable.
Although the mafura tree grows naturally in Mozambique, Bio Oleos is also working with community nurseries to grow seedlings for mafura and other trees, to reforest the Miombo biome.
What is the Miombo biome?
Miombo is a woodland area within southern and central Africa. Another way of describing it might be forested grassland, or forested savannah. The Miombo biome covers about 10 percent of Africa, including much of Mozambique, and large parts of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Tanzania.
Miombo consists of mostly dry areas, so its trees are drought-tolerant. The dryness also means there are frequent fires, which some tree species in the Miombo biome actually need. Their seeds depend on fire for germination, to help the seed develop into a plant.
Making a Difference
Reforesting the Miombo biome is one thing Bio Oleos is doing to make a difference. It’s a young and growing company, and as it grows, it’s trying to make a difference in other ways, too. It’s working to harvest materials sustainably: for example, the fruit used to make mafura oil is harvested in the wild. The company is also providing local jobs. And, Bio Oleos plans to build a production facility in an area with no electricity and running water. By putting the factory there, the company can help with rural development.
Bio Oleos, among other organizations, is also looking at how it can help grow exports of mafura oil from Mozambique to other countries. If the mafura trade can grow, it would be good for Mozambique. And, if mafura can offer an alternative to palm oil, it could be good for the environment, too.
Study Guide Questions:
1. What is mafura?
2. Why would it be good for Mozambique for the trade in mafura to get stronger?
3. What is the miombo biome?
4. Give one reason that mafura oil could be better to use in soap then palm oil.