The Kakadu plum is a renowned native Australian superfood whose health benefits were long known by the Aboriginal people of the region. In the past 10 years the tiny plum that tastes like a pear and apple combined, has been widely recognised as having more vitamin C than an orange and high in antioxidants. Now an Indigenous led business Mayi Harvest provides even greater value from this unique plum.
Mayi Harvests in the West Kimberley is an Aboriginal bush food business that provides culturally and environmentally sustainable land care methodologies based on traditional ecological knowledge. This TEK approach supports both the environment and the development of Indigenous micro-businesses and a culturally appropriate livelihood that nurtures local Aboriginal peoples on their traditional lands.
Chief executive officer, owner and founder Pat Mamanyjun Torres has family connections to Djugun, Yawuru, Nyul Nyul, Bard, Jabirr Jabirr and Ngumbarl peoples in an around the Broome Region.
Torres first started collecting Gabiny or Gubinge, also known as the Kakadu plum by the kilos as a sole trader for 12 years. Along the way she experimented making jams and chutneys, cordials and chilli belacan pastes for a few years.
A renowned local cook, Torres also held demonstrations at expos cooking kangaroo and damper, delivering workshops and presentations sharing stories about her people’s world view on the use of native Australian plants, the original Australian cuisine.
In 2018 and in previous years, Torres hand harvested tonnage of Kakadu Plum for other businesses. In 2019 she set up the company Mamanyjun Tree Enterprises Pty Ltd trading under the brand Mayi Harvests to further provide seasonal employment and business opportunities for local Aboriginal people to harvest their own lands, increase their community wellbeing and to maintain their cultural traditions.
“People living on their own land creates sustainable livelihoods. We collect carefully, you can get three pickings from the trees that way. Birds, animals and insects are also living off the fruit. You’ve got to leave some fruit for the animals and the insects who live on the fruit of plants,” Torres says.
The community taught Torres about their cultural ways learn to harvest responsibly with minimum impact to the tree. They pick fruit by hand and not with machines to ensure they don’t damage the plant.
“We just use baskets to put them in and when we pick it’s the full ripe fruit. We leave the new seeds coming through and the flowers for the next pickings, otherwise, you get no fruit next picking or next year, or damage the tree for years to come. We’re harvesting with the ecosystem in mind,” Torres says.
Responsible fruit picking nurtures more than the fruit, she points out. The company also nurtures family, family languages and cultural traditions, pride, self esteem and confidence. It’s Aboriginal business values done in the Aboriginal way combined with whitefella business skills, Torres says.
“Picking is healthy, it supports our wellbeing and emotional health is at higher level than just staying in our towns or cities while caring for our families. It maintains our knowledge systems and that’s sustainable for our identity, health, emotional status and cultural practices.”
Their company’s heart is evident in its business model. Mayi Harvests was partly a response to the historical government program the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) which was a precursor to the “work for the dole” scheme in the region comprising very low wages. The company employs up to 50 Aboriginal people per season, mostly Torres’ extended family and friends who pick the fruit with a large percentage of the proceeds paid to the pickers. Profits are ploughed back into the business to cover operating costs and work towards opening up more opportunities.
The company turns over around three tonnes of kakadu plums in a year. In some years it’s collected up to five tonnes. Torres is part of an alliance called the Northern Australian Aboriginal Kakadu Plum Alliance, which harvested 21 tonnes in the 2019/2020 season.
“For me, it’s also about educating our families to set up a small business and to teach them business concepts,” Torres says.
“Many of them have been on social security for a long time as there is minimal work opportunities in the region. The work helps them to earn a bit of money to support their families.”
Fruit picking season mainly occurs after Christmas when most available money has been spent on presents and food for their families, so this helps them survive during this period.
“It helps the mums get the kids back to school,” says Torres, “it fills a gap for people on low incomes living below the poverty line. It’s a bonus for families to have extra income in the New Year.”
The Kakadu plum is a renowned native Australian superfood whose health benefits were long known by the Aboriginal people of the region. In the past 10 years the tiny plum that tastes like a pear and apple combined, has been widely recognised as having more vitamin C than an orange.
It’s that concentration that has made it highly sought after for its antioxidant characteristics to fight cancer with its polyphenols. Torres says it’s this versatility, as a superfood, that has promoted many non-Indigenous farmers to cultivate other varieties of bush fruits on the east coast of Australia.
She understands from personal experience, the disadvantage that plagues Indigenous people and she’s scaling up the company to redress the historical exclusion of Aboriginal people from the agricultural industries.
“In the past it was whitefellas doing the business. It’s only in the last 8-10 years that we’ve been in the commercial industry,” Torres says. Currently Aboriginal people are only 1 per cent of the total native food industry.
“What’s stopping us is investment and a lack of infrastructure. The government gives huge amounts of money to farms but much of this doesn’t go to Aboriginal people.
“We now own more land in the country due to Native Title determinations, however we don’t benefit in the larger market share and are still learning about the markets and suppliers. That’s led to us being excluded from the industry for a long time.
“There’s a lot of privilege attached to the government grants and other business incentives but that’s starting to improve. It’s our traditional knowledges and generations of our people that have been maintaining these valuable native resources. We’ve been generous about sharing our traditional knowledges and so we should also get greater access to investment, government support and other benefits.”
Torres learnt about medicinal bush food knowledge while growing up on her traditional country to the north and south of Broome saying that 45 of her 64 years was intensive learning from her mother, grandmother and extended family. Her grandmother took her to Beagle Bay at the age of six to collect and show her how to cook the rosella plant that grew in the wild.
“The first thing I learnt to cook was how to make rosella jam,” Torres recalls. “We were always learning about the plants, even rosella, which is not a native but was imported into the region by the missionaries about 180 years ago. It was always part of our bush tucker gathering because it grows wild.”
In recent times Torres was featured as one of the first Indigenous chefs on National Indigenous TV for the Kriol Kitchen series created by her cousin filmmaker Mitch Torres and her sister Alison Torres.
Mayi Harvest provides cultural immersion experiences for tourists and workshops to share information about the region’s native bush foods. It’s registered with the international Slow Food movement and the Northern Australia Aboriginal Kakadu Plum Alliance.
In 2019 Indigenous food businesses across the country united to form the First Nations Bush Foods and Botanical Alliance to advocate for Indigenous business development in Australian native foods and the protection of intellectual property for its members. The ultimate aim is to get overdue recognition, an Indigenous led industry and businesses, recompense and ownership of their expert traditional knowledges.
Nancia Guivarra is a Meriam (Magaram clan), Wuthathi and Bindal Juru woman with a Bachelor of Applied Science (UQ) and a Graduate Diploma of Arts in Journalism (UTS). She is a multi-media writer, producer and director who works independently through her company Amneris Pty Ltd. Her experience includes more than 20 years at the ABC at Radio National and ABC Local Radio and Factual TV, as a producer of Deadly Sounds for Vibe Australia and as a senior journalist at NITV News and Current Affairs at SBS.
This article is part of a series on Indigenous businesses and was produced with the support of the City of Sydney.