Baobab is branching out...
The imposing baobab tree is one of the most distinctive features of the African landscape. Growing up to 40 metres high and believed to live for 1000 years, it is well-revered, not just for its place in African history, but for the many uses it offers local communities. There are big local markets for baobab products in West Africa, but it is new on the European scene where cosmetic and nutraceutical products have recently been introduced.
Information of its many uses in Africa is often kept within families and communities and while most people know some of the uses, few know them all. The Fruits of the Future project (started five years ago by the International Centre for Underutilised Crops or ICUC) aims to standardise that information and make it available to everyone. "The baobab is probably the most well known of all the species we are working with," explains project co-ordinator Angela Hughes. "Yet, before our project, it had the least available information of all." Ms Hughes and her team are trying to change that, through publication of books and extension materials, which aim to promote utilisation and the incorporation of the tree into existing farming systems.
Bark is big business
Baobab's high water content renders it useless for charcoal or fuelwood, but there are many other benefits to be had from the tree. "Bark - which is becoming more important now - is harvested for making rope and paper," says Ms Hughes. "This has become big business in some parts of Africa, but can cause problems if those harvesting the bark don't understand the issues of sustainability. It can generate an income for local people, but if they don't know how to do it sustainably the tree doesn't have enough time to regenerate."
The leaves are collected more than fruit, she explains, and are typically used as a vegetable. "They are dried, powdered and added to stews and other meals," she said. "Some farmers in Mali are intercropping baobab with pearl millet and then collecting the young leaves from the tree," she said. "They chop the young foliage off which encourages re-sprouting of vegetation." Meanwhile, the roots can be used to make red dye, shells can be made into cooking implements, while the leaves, seeds, and shells can all be used as animal feed or forage. "The seed oil is also good quality," says Ms Hughes. "It is used as a moisturising oil in cosmetics and can also be used in cooking."
Baobab in Europe
The Baobab Fruit Company was launched in Italy in 2001 after a three-year study highlighted some local products of high nutritional and pharmacological interest in Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Gambia. In traditional medicine, baobab fruit pulp is used as a febrifuge, painkiller, and in treatment of smallpox and measles, says the company. It is also commonly used (with the seeds and bark) as an antidote against poisoning, it says. And with its lubricating, binding, and diluting properties, baobab pulp has recently been used as "hydrophilic matrix in pharmaceutical formulations of paracetamol and theophylline sustained-release tablets". The products it sells to European consumers are all derived from parts of the tree including dried leaves, which are rich in carotene, calcium, and mucilage. The cosmetic product line includes shampoo, moisturiser and cleansing products made from baobab pulp and leaf extracts with extra additions including mallow, seaweed and bee-glue.
Despite all the benefits, the project is not encouraging farmers to cultivate baobab as an alternative crop, but as one that complements existing crops. "We want to encourage farmers to plant it as well as their food crops and cash crops in their home gardens, on the field bunds, or maybe intercropped with other species," says Ms Hughes. "Baobab is very hardy and adaptable to local climate and even in extreme conditions will bring food or an income with very few inputs."