What is mpingo?
Mpingo is one of the most expensive timbers in the world and is preferred wood of the musical instrument trade because of its high density, fine texture and exceptional durability. Due to unsustainable extraction the tree is threatened with commercial extinction, but a sustainable trade is possible, providing a secure long term future for both woodwind musicians and communities who live around the forests where it grows. The current trade is extremely inequitable with local communities receiving only a tiny fraction of the wood's value, but if this value could instead be leveraged for the benefit of local farmers it would provide valuable additional income to some of the poorest people in Tanzania and an economic incentive for those communities to conserve and protect their forests. In short it has enormous potential to act as a flagship species for both conservation and development.
Mpingo: the Tree
Mpingo is the Swahili name for Dalbergia melanoxylon, the East African Blackwood. The trees have a scruffy appearance and are frequently multi-stemmed and extensively branched. They grow very slowly and often in very gnarled and twisted shapes. Harvestable size is not reached until an estimated 70 to 100 years. Mature trees are typically between 4.5m and 7.5m high, with an average girth of 1.2m. The yellowish-brown bark on the main stem flakes off in long strips, while smaller branches bear sharp spines 2-3cm in length.
Mpingo goes under many different names:
(East) African Blackwood (English), Mpingo (Swahili), Pau preto (Portuguese), Grenadilla (trade name), Zebrawood (trade name), Mugembe (from its use as a hoe), Poyi, Endisika, Kidamo, Kinti, Masojanda, Mgembya, Mhembote, Mhingo, Minday, Mupako, Mwajinde, Ngembi, Nyamfunga, Oitlaska, Q'oya, Tamumo mhembete
Mpingo is semi-deciduous, losing many of its leaves over the dry season in common with most trees of its habitat. The flowers are small, white, sweetly scented and grow in tight clusters. They develop into greyish, papery pods each containing one or two seeds which are wind dispersed.