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Where cashew is king, it fails to rule the economy

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The story of the cashew is, in many ways, the story of modern Mozambique and many other developing countries. It is a tale of colonialism, commerce, and war, and of the perils – and potential – of aid.

It is a contested story, and, in Mozambique, still a highly emotional one. But what is clear, regardless of one’s position, is that the legacy of the cashew looms large.

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The cashew itself is an ornery nut to crack.

Its kernel grows on the green, shady cashew trees cultivated along Mozambique’s 1,500-mile coastline. It is encased in a hard shell so acidic that it can burn through fabric and damage skin. Getting to the tasty part is no easy task.

One method is to heat the cashews in a tin over a fire until the cashew oil ignites and the shells split – that’s the preferred method of most subsistence cashew sellers. Another way is to freeze the nuts in liquid nitrogen and crack them. The Mocita factory heated the nuts in a 195 degree Celsius oven, spun them in a centrifuge, dried them, and blew off the remaining shells with compressed air. These days, inexpensive hand processing is back in favor.

Mozambique was the world’s top cashew producer when it won independence from Portugal in 1975. More than a dozen large factories using mechanical processes to remove the kernel turned out 150,000 to 200,000 tons annually.

But civil war soon engulfed the country and decimated the industry. By the time of the country’s peace agreement in 1992, the ruling government was courting private investors in hope of reviving the cashew economy. It had also planned a massive cashew tree-planting campaign (kernel yield decreases as cashew trees age) and put a high tax on cashew exports to encourage local processing.

“It made enormous sense from the country’s point of view to invest in cashews,” says Higgo. “Cashew trees were growing. The population knew what to do. It was a dollar-earning export.”

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