From the roadside to high-end restaurants- is there potential for a Maku nut market?

by Christian Rivera (RECOFTC-Enhancing Livelihoods and Markets, Princeton in Asia fellow 2014-2015)

The demand for Maku nuts comes from individuals from nearby villages, Chinese traders, and Thai customers across the river. In Thailand, nuts are sold to a few buyers at Ha Bai Market and in Chiang Khong District, Chiang Rai, at prices ranging from 170 to 250 Thai baht/kilogram. While about 20 families take part in gathering the Maku from the forest, only about 5-8 women in the village sell the nuts directly to buyers passing by their stall and to the local market.

Trading in the village is dominated by two entrepreneurs who hire villagers to crack the Maku shells and extract the nuts, paying them about 40-50 THB/kg, which equates to the work of about one day. Fabian Noeske, ForInfo Project Manager, believes that this selling price is not sufficient to sustain the livelihoods of the villagers: “50 Thai baht per day is definitely not a great income, not even for a supplementary one. To reach higher incomes, improvements in efficiency are needed- higher price per kg will not make the cut alone”.

One entrepreneur claims to meet orders of 50-100 kg for the Chinese traders, two times a week for the four months- selling anywhere from 1,600-3,200 kg of Maku nuts during one season. When it is difficult to meet the demand, nuts are purchased and delivered from Vien Phouka District in Laos, a region that may also be abundant in this species. What’s more, the Chinese traders have also taken an interest collecting the Maku shell waste for unknown reasons. One explanation might be that due to its oily nature, the shell serves as an excellent fuel for fires.

Maku shells are used as fuel for fires. Photo Credit: Jephraim Oro

Interestingly enough, only one entrepreneur holds the direct contact of the Chinese traders. She asserted this herself, and was confirmed by a local shopkeeper who resides right across the road and also attempts to sell the nuts. When asked if she would prefer for an advertisement board to be placed at the village entrance to help develop a direct market for the nuts, she didn’t hesitate to state her opposition, claiming, “a sign would create more competition and potentially reduce her own customers supply”. Members of the ForInfo Project speculate that a sign at the village entrance would be the immediate intervention to undertake, as tourists pass through the village on their way to the nearby resort city- the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone.

The small trading that is already set in place at Nam Yone village brings with it various opportunities for establishing a vibrant market; improved shell cracking methods can increase productivity and yields, direct marketing at the village level can reduce dependence on a middleman and hands benefits directly to the community members, shell waste can be sold as fuel, and higher-end restaurants can tap into the value chain- as exemplified by the occasional use of the Maku nuts at a local restaurant in Bangkok that offers a trendy “modern cuisine menu”.

Maku nuts ready to be sold. Photo Credit: Jephraim Oro

Yet, these opportunities are not without obstacles. Yes, there may be an abundance of Maku trees in the region, but competing employment opportunities such as taking part in the fast expanding banana plantation operations in the province may seem more appealing. Combine that with the power structure in the village and the possible reluctance for an increase in the competition that Maku trading can bring, it is a bit difficult to assert whether establishing a market is feasible. And even if a market can be established, food safety regulations would most likely require strict standards on trading the nuts, which would begin with proper identification of the species (something that has not been properly conducted), and a toxicity analysis to investigate possible impacts to human health (most likely looking at soil born aflatoxin contamination, a fungus that can infect the nuts before harvest or during storage). So to what extent is there potential for a market? How can a competitive market and interventions be initiated and establishing while reducing competition amongst village members? These are crucial questions to be addressed, but what needs to come first is a proper resource analysis of the species during the fruiting and harvesting season from September to December as well a botanical analysis to clearly and unmistakably identify and confirm the species. This will require a few trips to the lab, and perhaps the kitchen.

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