Wonder Dondo has been surrounded by tall green masau trees for as long as he can remember and, just like his father before him, he makes a living by trading the fruit that they bear. "I regard masau as my cash crop", said Dondo, who lives in northern Zimbabwe's Dande Valley. "Although it's a seasonal fruit, l earn more income from it compared to maize and rapoko (finger millet Eleusine coracana) which l grow for subsistence."

This area, close to the Mozambique border, is renowned for its indigenous masau (Ziziphus mauritiana) trees. "They grow naturally here. We have eaten masau fruit all our lives", said villager Thomas Chimukoko. "The seeds are very strong and drought-resistant, so they spring up when the rains fall." Although it is common, the masau tree is highly valued in this hot, dry region. Besides the fruit, it provides good shelter and its leaves are eaten by goats and other browsers.

"When the seeds spring up near homes, we fence around it using thorny tree branches or wire so that domestic animals do not destroy the tender seedlings", said Peter Chipiso a village head in the Kamutsenzere area. Large tracts of the masau forests are communal, but most families also own land where the fruit trees grow. "We discourage one another from cutting the masau fruit tree for poles because we all know that the fruit is our source of income from June to November each year", explained Chipiso.

This village head also discourages traders and villagers from using crude methods of harvesting, such as shaking the branches and throwing objects to dislodge the fruits, since damaged trees do not produce well the following season. "If they cut the trees, l ban them from harvesting the fruit and report them to the chief", he said.

For short distances, the fruit is carried in sacks, tins and buckets to roadside stalls or markets. Lorries and public transport are used to transport the fruit to urban areas. "Our customers like the fruit and are prepared to pay for it, especially when it is fresh", said Judith Foya, one of the women selling the fruit on the Mt Darwin to Mukumbura road. Masau fetches €20 per 50-kg bag in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. Some villagers in the Dande district also use it to barter, exchanging fruit for maize, chicken, clothes and goats.

The masau fruit, also found in neighbouring Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, is wine coloured and wizened, with a sweet and slightly sour taste. The shape and texture are reminiscent of dried plums. Masau are chewy, and you need to use your teeth to tear the flesh off the seed. The fruit is rich in vitamin C and beta carotene.

"Whilst we eat it fresh, we can also dry it for use later or make it into bread and Masau jam", explained Forbes Shiri, a village head in Muzarabani. Local communities use the fruit as a base for distilling an alcoholic beverage called kachasu. In traditional medicine, masau is used to treat a variety of ailments including colds and flu.

In spite of the many uses and benefits of this versatile local fruit, much more could be done to tap its huge potential. "The national production of masau in Zimbabwe is estimated at 200,000 t per year", said Hendrex Phiri, a researcher into African fruits. "Unfortunately, most of this undergoes post-harvest losses, with over 60% of it having to be discarded. Other problems are poor marketing and inadequate harvest and processing techniques, as well as lack of strategic product development for value-addition to fruits. It is a shame that local producers do not get more support to develop this very promising sector."

Jonathan Gandari

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