Sunday, April 5, 2009

Africa's "superfruit" arrives in the west

Africa's "superfruit" arrives in the west: the growing trend for healthy, nature-based products in the developed world, and the more wealthy developing nations as well, is creating a potentially massive demand for some of Africa's traditional health-giving produce. Tom Nevin reports.

Natural products--food, cosmetics or alternative medicines--are becoming increasingly popular with a new generation of health-conscious consumers. These products most often draw on the traditional knowledge of communities in Africa and more than ever are finding lucrative markets in such developed economies as the US, Europe and the Far East.

One of the most exciting of these new generation products is the fruit of the humble boabab tree which grows practially everywhere in Africa. The EU has now given qualified approval for the fruit to be distributed and sold all over Europe, thus opening up a potentially vast market for small-scale African producers to exploit. "This is certainly good news for Africa," says Cyril Lombard, PhytoTrade Africa's marketing manager, "because it demonstrates the huge potential for Africa-wide supply of baobab."

PhytoTrade Africa was set up with the support of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialised agency of the UN that helps micro-producers understand and exploit the value of their natural products and the new interest they are generating. This allows them to promote beyond their region and gain access to new markets.

In terms of commercial scope, the natural product market is already a big business. Global sales for herbal remedies alone are expected to reach $40bn by 2010, and Africa is widely seen as the last untapped source for such remedies.


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"Communities in many African countries traditionally use natural remedies made from indigenous seeds and plants to cure ailments, and they have handed down their knowledge from generation to generation," says Lombard. "For example, harvesting nuts and seeds is a traditional activity across the continent and an important supplement to incomes in areas of low productivity, especially for women. But until now, ancestral remedies have been available only in local markets."

Nutraceutical industry

PhytoTrade Africa is the commercial name used by the Southern African Natural Products Trade Association. The membership-based organisation was established in 2001 with the support of a $1.5m technical assistance grant.

"The global market for cosmetics and nutraceuticals based on natural products is growing rapidly," reports Lombard. "PhytoTrade Africa works to create economic opportunities for poor rural communities in dry and marginal areas by linking them to markets for their plant products.

"It works mainly with women, who harvest natural products such as wild fruit and seeds from common woodlands. Most of the association's members are small-scale entrepreneurs and civil society organisations involved in transporting and processing the products and, increasingly, in exporting them."

PhytoTrade is officially registered in Johannesburg, representing members from small farming communities, local associations and institutes in Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The association has recently opened a marketing office in London. "The work of PhytoTrade Africa focuses on building value chains that connect harvesters with markets, and on supporting and linking up market players along the value chain," explains Lombard.

"In 2006, almost 30,000 rural harvesters--over 90% of them women--sold raw or value-added plant materials to PhytoTrade Africa members for a total value of $384,000, making a small but important contribution to building the economic livelihoods of some of the poorest people in the region."

Who are the members of PhytoTrade Africa? "Its members are drawn from a wide spectrum of players in the natural products industry," says the organisation. "Its primary constituency is poor rural producers, but its members also include NGOs, the private sector, researchers, government departments and interested individuals.

"In joining PhytoTrade, each member has to formally sign the Association's constitution, binding them to the fundamental objective: To enable poor rural communities in the Southern African region to generate income through the sustainable utilisation of natural products."

The new "superfruit"

PhytoTrade Africa expects huge markets for the baobab, Africa's strangest-looking tree, to open up, now that the EU has approved the entrance of baobab fruit pulp into the European market. Pulp from baobab fruit is used in healthy cereal bars and drinks, mainly because its vitamin C content is nearly six times greater than that of an orange. The baobab tree, best known for a thick trunk that can reach a circumference of 25 metres, is also renowned in Africa for its many nutritional and medicinal properties and its many uses for beverages, food and oil. The bark of the tree is already being sold in Europe under the name cortex cael cedra, used to treat fever. Some of PhytoTrade Africa's partners are interested in the tree's properties. The French company Aldivia is one of a number of enterprises specialising in supplying refined base oils to the cosmetics industry. "Aldivia is investing in research to develop a baobab pulp oil suitable for the cosmetics industry," says Lombard.

The baobab's remarkable properties hit the headlines last year when it was described as "a new superfruit", following its approval by the EU in the Novel Foods category. Suddenly, producers and businesses from all over Africa wanted in on the baobab trade.

He also sounds a note of caution. "The market for baobab fruit products is currently embryonic and we're at the start of a long process to develop this industry, both from a supply chain and technical perspective.

"Also, the conditions of the Novel Foods approval mean that the market in the EU for baobab fruit products will be exclusively for members of PhytoTrade Africa. In addition, the specifications are very tight and need to be complied with in order to protect the European consumer.

"PhytoTrade will monitor the market and, in time, may be able to offer producers in non-PhytoTrade countries opportunities, if the market demands it."

The organisation also promotes marula oil, regarded as the new miracle oil in cosmetics because of its nourishing and moisturising properties. It is already commercialised as an ingredient at the Body Shop, one of the first cosmetics companies to use natural ingredients in its range of products. "All the lipsticks sold by the Body Shop use marula oil as a base ingredient," says Lombard.

Marula oil is extracted from the kernel of the fruit of the marula tree, a towering 18m savanna giant. Traditionally it is used to preserve meat, to protect leather clothing and to treat and rehydrate skin and hair. The bark is said to be effective against diarrhoea, dysentery, fever and malaria, and the fruit is used to make jam and beer.

Other products promoted by PhytoTrade Africa include the Kalahari melon, whose seeds are also used in cosmetics, and the products of the kigelia tree, which is common throughout Africa and whose oil and seeds have long been known for their dietary and medicinal properties, particularly in treating skin ailments. PhytoTrade Africa and its partners are also undertaking research into the use of mongongo oil, extracted from mongongo nuts, a staple food of the bushmen of Botswana and Namibia. They are also considering the use of the mobula plum, trichilia tree and ximenia fruit in health food and cosmetics.

"Products bearing the PhytoTrade label must ensure respect for biodiversity and environmental sustainability and come with a biodiversity certificate," says Lombard. "To guarantee this condition, the association has been working with partners, including the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development to create an international organic classification for the products, along the lines of the Fair Trade label."

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