By Pamenus Tuso
From time immemorial, wild fruits have occupied a special place in the lives of rural people in many Southern Africa countries, including Zimbabwe.
Indigenous fruits have been an essential component in the human lives of many rural families. The fruits are a reliable source of food in times of hunger and have saved many remote communities from starvation. Many families in Southern Africa also depend on fruit trees for traditional medicines and even for crafting curios.
Despite playing this critical food security complimentary role, indigenous wild fruit trees have been slowly dwindling owing to a number of factors, chief among them being climate change.
The other major problem facing the extinction of the trees is poaching and veld fires.
A tree planting enthusiastic Never Bonde, who is also Zimbabwe’s National Tree Ambassador, said wild fruit trees face an uncertain future due to the negative effects of changing weather patterns which have been blamed for successive droughts not only in Zimbabwe but in Africa as a whole.
Bonde said continued dry spells have also compromised the quality of indigenous fruit trees.
“A lot of wild fruits such as tsambadzi and maroro which people used to eat long ago have disappeared because of changing weather patterns. Wild fruits need a lot of rain for them to grow well and become juicy and jelly, because of lack of adequate water, some wild fruits now produce a bitter taste and are prone to a lot of diseases,” said Bonde.
The Tree Planting Ambassador has initiated interventions to try and save the endangered indigenous fruit trees from further extinction. As part of the initiative, Bonde is nurturing an indigenous wild fruit nursery at Ruchera Primary school in Nyanga, in Manicaland province.
“I am working with the school to raise 4,000 indigenous wild fruit plants which we hope to distribute throughout the country. We have tasked children to collect the seedlings from the bush as well as source organic manure which is ideal for the planting of the plants,” he said.
Bonde said he decided to choose Nyanga for the project because of its abundance of various wild fruits. The areas have also high rainfall.
World Agroforestry (ICRAF), a centre of science and development excellence that harnesses the benefits of trees for people and the environment, has also embarked on a programme to domesticate and cultivate indigenous fruits in Zimbabwe and other developing countries.
In Zimbabwe, the project which is being implemented in corroboration with the Department of Research and Specialist Services as well as the Forestry Commission, is targeting three species namely: Uapaca Kirkiana (Mushuku /Muzhanje, wild loquat (Mupfura/Marula) and Monkey orange /Muzhumwi.
“We have a trial of wild loquat at Domboshava Training Centre while the other trials of Marula and Mazhumwi were neglected when ICRAF funding was concluded in Zimbabwe. We have a beautiful trial of monkey orange in Zambia and wild loquat as well,” said Dr Betserai Nyoka, a tree scientist working for ICRAF. ICRAF conducts research into propagation, selection and breeding of superior cultivars.
Propagation and breeding of wild fruits has its own challenges, however, according to Dr Nyoka, in an interview with Green Energy.
“There are challenges with the propagation of some (not all) of the indigenous fruits. For example, grafting is a challenge with graft uptake at lower than 50 percent,” Dr Nyoka said.
Funding challenges have also affected the indigenous domestication programme in Zimbabwe. Nyoka also decried the dwindling of wild fruit trees in the country.
“Trees in the wild are declining in numbers due to droughts, land clearing, and deforestation. With the increased exploitation of the trees for income generation, harvests from the wild are also increasingly becoming inadequate,” said Dr Nyoka.
Recent studies in Malawi have shown that dwindling of indigenous fruits is associated with decreased fruit consumption as well as malnutrition.
The Forestry Commission in Zimbabwe has also been involved in the training of smallholder farmers on how to preserve and conserve wild fruits forests.
“We have been conducting various trainings on how to preserve and conserve our forests. We want people to appreciate the value of our forests,” said Violet Makoto, Forestry Commission spokesperson.
Makoto however, expressed concern over the overexploitation of wild fruits, especially mazhanje, for commercial purposes.