Monday, June 8, 2009

The business behind baobab: Africa’s superfruit

Financial success is a big enough ambition for most entrepreneurs, but not for Chris Dohse. Not only does want to make money, but he is also out to change the lives of millions and save vast areas of endangered African forest

Behind his business TreeCrops - based in Lilongwe, Malawi - is the baobab, a fruit that looks like a velvety green coconut and has been dubbed “the new superfruit” by market research gurus Mintel. Baobab grows wild in Africa in huge quantities and while Africans have eaten it for millennia, few Europeans has even heard of it until the EU approved it for use in food and drink in 2008. Thanks to its remarkable nutrient profile, baobab is now attracting intense interest from international food companies.

Chris Dohse, originally from Konstanz on the German-Swiss border, spotted the commercial potential of baobab ten years ago when he first came to Malawi. ‘I knew it could be the next mango,’ he says.

A professional forester and ardent environmentalist (he is also Chair of the Wildlife & Environmental Society of Malawi), Dohse believes that developing a global market for baobab can deliver income to poor communities while protecting the biodiversity of Africa’s natural woodlands.

‘We help communities and their leaders to recognise that their woodlands have commercial potential and can be a source of income. By doing so, we encourage them to protect the trees and stop the burning and clearing of the forest,’ he says.

Dohse established his company – TreeCrops Malawi – in 2003 with assistance from the German Development Service (DED). He was joined by Malawian Rosby Mthimba, who also saw the potential of baobab to make a real difference to the lives of rural people.

Mthimba plays a key role in managing the relationship between TreeCrops and the communities, training collectors in how to harvest baobab sustainably, how to handle and store it, and how to plan their land use.

‘It is Rosby’s commitment and talent for making convincing arguments that has made TreeCrops a success,’ says Dohse. ‘She translates my thoughts into the local language and gets the villagers on board. I couldn’t do this without her.’

TreeCrops guarantees to buy baobab from the communities it works with, substantially increasing the average annual income for villagers. In recognition of the traditional knowledge on which its business is based, the company also returns a percentage of its own sales to help fund community projects such as boreholes, school buildings, or forest regeneration.

According to Ben Bennett of the UK’s Natural Resources Institute at the University of Greenwich, TreeCrops provides a model for what could become a massive industry.

‘The numbers could be significant,’ says Bennett. ‘If baobab production is fully commercialised across Southern Africa, it could generate a $1 billion global trade and deliver life-changing income to 2.5 million poor rural households. ‘

At TreeCrops, Dohse is using state-of-the-art professional forestry techniques such as GPS mapping to identify and monitor over 3000 wild baobab trees. He predicts production capacity with ruthless accuracy, plans for long term sustainability and provides communities with maps of their own land and trees.

‘The concept of owning trees is new for rural people in Malawi,’ he says. ‘Beforehand the woodlands were considered common land and no one took responsibility for them. Things are changing now that communities have a financial incentive to look after their resources.’

2009 promises to be the breakthrough year for baobab. Having succeeded in opening up the European market, PhytoTrade Africa – the trade body for the Southern African natural products industry – has its sights set on the US. It has producers in Zambia and Mozambique ready to join TreeCrops in baobab production as demand from the West grows.

As for Chris Dohse and Rosby Mthimba, the pioneers of the baobab industry, where next?

‘The African forest is an untapped treasure trove,’ says Dohse. ‘There are dozens of species other than baobab that have a place in Western markets, for foods, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. We’re currently talking to a big German company about a plant extract with potential use in a heart drug. The future is looking brighter both for rural people here and the forest.’

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your comments, stop by again and say hi to the seine for me.
    Dr Baobab