Thursday, April 2, 2009

Baobab - African superfruit heads for Europe

In July 2008, the EU gave baobab fruit Novel Foods approval, legalising its use as a food ingredient for European manufacturers. Baobab fruit pulp is rich in vitamin C, calcium, potassium and phosphorus, and is pro-biotic, stimulating the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. As such, it has enormous potential as an ingredient in healthy foods and snacks, and dozens of companies are now conducting product development. So does this mean that baobab harvesters can expect to earn an income from their fruit, and what about risks to sustainability? Dr Nonto Nemarundwe of PhytoTrade Africa offers some answers.

The baobab is probably Africa's best known tree, and one of the most widely distributed trees on the continent. For generations, people have harvested the fruit, to enjoy the tangy pulp that surrounds the seeds. It's also been used locally as a treatment for stomach problems and fever.

In 2008, European lawmakers gave baobab a Novel Foods approval, legalising the import of baobab pulp into Europe as a food ingredient. This resulted from an appeal by PhytoTrade Africa, a non-profit making association committed to promoting African natural products.

So what are the implications for baobab harvesters? Can they expect to earn some income from this new European market? To find out, Sylvia Khumalo spoke to Dr Nonto Nemarundwe, of PhytoTrade Africa's Harare office.

This is really exciting news for our farmers, because it means the market potential for baobab products will increase, and it also means more supplementary incomes for them. We are also, at the moment, talking to some large European food and beverage manufacturers, to see what kind of products they could develop that would use the baobab as an ingredient. Some of the products would be, like fruit smoothies, milk shakes or health bars. And also we are looking at having the baobab pulp being used in sports and nutritional drinks, and in some cases in flavouring breakfast cereals or flavouring biscuits and cakes. So really there is a huge potential now that we've been awarded this novel foods approval, to have more demand for the products.

And now, the service that primary producers get from PhytoTrade?
As a trade association, most of the services, like the technical services, the training and capacity building that we do, is really directly to our members. But beyond the members we also have the rural producers, who are the harvesters of these natural products, who are directly involved with our members. So we encourage our members to also build capacity among the primary producers and share information that we generate. For instance, last year we did some case studies in Swaziland, Zambia and Namibia, where we were looking at impacts at community level. They have the resource which they have been using for subsistence, and this is an opportunity for them to also generate some income which they can use for investments.

Like for instance, in some of the case studies that we've done, we've found out that the money that people get from selling the natural products is not only used to buy food or pay school fees, cover basic needs. The rural communities are also using the money to invest in bigger projects, maybe start some small businesses, buy livestock which is a long term investment, and also, like the women have used the money to join some savings clubs which they couldn't join before, and through these savings and credit schemes they are now able to access loans, which they can use to establish other enterprises.

So in a way, this is giving them an opportunity to earn income from a product that they were only using for subsistence. They still use the products for subsistence, but at the same time they are now getting additional benefits from the products.

Every excitement needs to be contained. What is PhytoTrade going to do to contain this excitement so that we avoid extinction of the species?

Yes, you are right. There have been questions being raised on whether there could be some over-harvesting because of this excitement. The advantage with the kind of work we do at the moment is that really our focus is on what has traditionally been referred to as the non-timber-forest-products. It doesn't really have direct impact on the tree that is being harvested, because we are collecting the seed, so we are not really cutting the trees or anything.

But the question which has been raised is, in the long term, what impact does that have on regeneration, if we are using the seeds. So what we have done is we have established three case studies, to assess the environmental impacts of the use of the seeds that we use for the oils and also the pulp. So in the long term we also want to ensure that there is sustainability. Also, what our members have also done, they have also started some initiatives of tree planting, to ensure that in the long term we do have resource availability.

For instance, in Malawi they have some tree planting initiatives that they have started at the moment for baobab. It's a long term growing tree, it takes many years to grow, but I think these small steps would also contribute in the long term to the sustainability of the resource. And then in Mozambique we also have another member who has started some initiatives around carbon sequestration. So with all these initiatives, that are aimed at ensuring long term sustainability of the resource. And also this we are seeing is also contributing to biodiversity conservation in a way, because previously people didn't really care about the products.

Anyone could collect anywhere, any time, because it was just for subsistence; there was no market. Now that there is a market and people can realise some income from the products, we are seeing communities now guarding jealously against their trees, and they are managing them more. They are more conscious about ensuring there is good management of the trees.

So in a way it is also contributing to biodiversity. So the challenge of over-harvesting I think is something that at the moment people are really taking into consideration and ensuring that there is sustainable use of these resources.

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