Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Picking Money from the Baobab Tree

The fruit of the highly revered African baobab tree is being seen as a great new opportunity for the poor, after a recent decision by the European Commission to allow its importation. According to one study, gathering the fruit has the potential to earn an extra US $1 billion a year for Africa, and bring work and income to 2.5 million households, most of them African bush dwellers (Britain’s Natural Resources Institute).

The fruit of the African baobab tree is mostly collected in the wild from the ancient trees, which can live for 500 years, with some as old as 5,000 years. The baobob enjoys the veneration and respect traditionally accorded to age in Africa, and features in many stories and myths.

The fruit is seen as highly nutritious and a new taste option for the European market. This could be a major potential boost to Africa; the European Union is the world’s biggest trader, accounting for 20 percent of global imports and exports, and a major trading partner of most African countries. South Africa alone exports Euro 20.9 billion a year to Europe (2007).

But serious concerns have been raised about how the harvesting of the fruit will be done, and under what conditions. Getting this right is critical if the sustainability of the fruit is to be maintained, local populations are to benefit, and local use of this food source — eaten by both people and animals — does not suffer.

European food and drink companies are looking to use the fruit of the tree to flavour a large range of products, from cereal to drinks.

Baobab fruit is valued for its alleged medicinal properties in treating fevers and diarrhoea, and as a calcium supplement.

“The potential is huge … We’re quite confident that it’s going to represent significant returns for rural producers,” Dr. Lucy Welford, marketing manager of PhytoTrade Africa, a trade organisation that campaigns for the sustainable use of African natural products, told Reuters.

“I’d say it’s somewhere between grapefruit and tamarind as a kind of flavour,” said Welford, who expects baobab fruit to be used at first to flavour smoothies and cereal bars. It could also be used in juices, ice-creams and jams or bakery products.

PhytoTrade works with South African firm Afriplex, which supplies baobab fruit pulp and extracts.

A refreshing juice made from baobab fruit pulp, known as “bouye” is widely served.

“The tart flavour, the interesting vitamin and nutrition profile and the sexy story that goes with it — that it’s wild harvested from a very lovely tree — these things add value to the existing products,” said marketing economist Ben Bennet, who wrote the 2007 Natural Resources Institute’s report.

In the baobab forests around Tandene village in Senegal, local farmers said they looked forward to earning much more from the trees. Prices for a kilo of baobab fruit varied between 40 US cents and a dollar, they said.

“If people know (that European consumers will buy the product) then they’ll look after the trees better and feed them less to their animals,” said farmer Alassane Sy.

Chido Makunike, an active commentator on food and agricultural issues in Africa, raises some serious concerns about how this is handled. “Being a non-cultivated forest product, who ‘owns’ the baobab fruit? Can anybody just take a truck into the forest, collect the fruit and export it? Obviously the sudden dramatic change in the economic importance of the baobab will open up many questions that will need regulation.”

He worries the fruit will just be exported in its raw form, and processed into products in Europe - leaving Africa and Africans the ones who benefit least economically.

“Yet baobab is a dry, not-easily perishable, easy to process fruit,” he said. “It would not be difficult to have the smoothies and cereal bars that are being contemplated for its use made in Africa and exported as finished product, producing many downstream benefits and keeping more of the wealth to be generated within the continent.”

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