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13
MARAMA

Strange that marama has not been introduced into cultivation. Above ground, this plant produces seeds that rival peanut and soybean in composition and nutritive value. Below, it produces a high-protein tuber much bigger and more nutritious than any potato, yam, or even sugar beet. And the plant also yields top-quality vegetable oil. In addition, it thrives in poor-quality soil and under the harshest of climates. Indeed, in its native habitat droughts often last years on end, a feature ruinous to mainstream crops and most living creatures but not to marama.

Moreover, the life-giving propensities of this resilient species are by no means restricted to food. The plant probably survives the seemingly interminable droughts by drawing on water stored in its tuber, which in dry years shrinks dramatically. Some of those tubers hold an immense amount of water. One dug up in Botswana weighed 277 kg, perhaps 250 kg of which would have been water. In arid and semiarid regions these “living cisterns” become important emergency sources of water for both humans and animals.

Despite these surprising qualities, though, little is known about the plant and almost nothing is understood about its cultivation. Among Africa’s many native foods, this remains one of the most neglected. Yet, the record clearly shows that a dedicated research and development effort might well lift this wild species out of obscurity and perhaps project it far enough to contribute importantly to the food supply in some of the most challenging of all agricultural locations.

Marama is endemic to southern Africa. Native to the Kalahari and neighboring sandy lands, it has a long history as a resource. Indeed, humankind is believed to have originated in this general area; marama may have been in our diet as long as any food in existence. Even today it is an important dietary component for some in the region. People in remote settlements and among nomadic groups rely on it as did our earliest ancestors. It is, for instance, a popular delicacy of the Herero, Tswana, and other Bantu-speaking peoples and is a key part of the diet of some Khoisan peoples (!Kung and Khoi-khoi). For some !Kung only mongongo nut surpasses it in importance as a life-sustaining foodstuff.

For all that, the plant has never been regularly cultivated. This is what is so strange. Marama is a rich source of protein and energy, and nourishes



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