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Branching out - safou goes global

The African plum, also known as safou, is a fitting example of African biodiversity (Honoré Tabuna)
The African plum, also known as safou, is a fitting example of African biodiversity
Honoré Tabuna

With its green or white flesh, purple skin, and a flavour described as simultaneously nutty and tangy, the African plum (Dacryodes edulis), is a fitting example of African biodiversity. Known as safou in central Africa, and as different from a conventional plum as an avocado is from a pear, its oily flesh is eaten roasted or boiled as a tasty accompaniment to plantain or fufu porridge.

Recently, however, safou has been expanding its range; shoppers in Cameroon, for example, can now buy safou bread-spreads and packets of safou chips. Some specialist food shops have begun selling safou cooking oil, whilst cosmetic and medicinal safou products are now prescribed for a range of complaints, from skin swellings and joint pain to dandruff and wrinkles.

Multipurpose plums

Air layering or marcotting
involves removing a ring of bark from branches of a selected tree. The stripped area of branch is encased within a substrate, such as decomposed sawdust, and wrapped to the branch with clear plastic. Within three months roots start to form, visible through the plastic. The branch is then cut, trimmed and planted, and starts flowering from the second year. If more aggressively trimmed, the marcots produce large numbers of shoots which can be cut off and grown in a propagator. They produce low branching, broad-crowned trees with identical fruit to the parent plant.

Like the majority of indigenous African fruit crops, the African plum has received little commercial attention until relatively recently. The fruit have a long harvesting season but a short shelf life, ranging from a day to a week, depending on handling and storage conditions. In Cameroon the fruit are picked between May and November and sold to wholesalers, but links between growers and buyers are generally poor, with little communication on market preferences. For processors, however, such communication is vital, as safou fruit differ markedly, varying in size, flesh colour and sourness. Different products require different types of fruit; chip makers, for example, prefer thin-fleshed fruit, while oil extractors need large fruit with thick flesh, and ointment requires fruit with high acidity.

To identify a range of suitable cultivars, plant breeders from the World Agroforesty Centre (ICRAF) in Cameroon have been working with experienced safou growers. Once selected the plants are multiplied for supply to tree nurseries and farmers. Air layering, also known as marcotting, is the preferred multiplication technique (see box), as it produces hundreds of shoots from a single tree, each capable of bearing fruit within as little as two to three years. Genetically identical to the mother plant, the quality of the fruit is also guaranteed. Farmers and nursery operators have been trained in propagation and cultivation practices, such as tree spacing. Farmers have also learned post-harvest handling, grading and price negotiation skills, and have been linked to specific processors appropriate to the safou cultivars they are growing.

Markets at home and abroad

Safou at Douala Airport, ready for export (Honoré Tabuna )
Safou at Douala Airport, ready for export
Honoré Tabuna

In the fruit and vegetable markets of Brixton, a London suburb with a high African population, fresh safou from Cameroon are on display. But while European markets may be a tempting option for African producers, ICRAF marketing advisor, Honoré Tabuna, believes that local and regional markets are a better first step for sales of fresh fruit. Even within central Africa, harvesting seasons differ, so a fluctuating annual trade between, for instance, Cameroon, DR Congo and Angola is a real possibility.

Tabuna, who previously marketed ethnic food in Europe, highlights, however, a lack of professionalism which limits the market for safou and other local and indigenous products. In Cameroon, he points out, there is no university or institute which offers training in the marketing of such products, and private sector companies have not yet explored techniques such as advertising, or promotional campaigns. "In Africa, we have a lot of opportunities, but no good strategies," he concludes.

Safou on sale at a local market in Cameroon (Honoré Tabuna )
Safou on sale at a local market in Cameroon
Honoré Tabuna

Plans to strengthen Cameroon's safou sector include the establishment of professional associations for producers, processors and exporters, and setting up a regional safou trade network. In the meantime, there are encouraging signs of safou's global potential. Forty Cameroonian companies are now exporting fresh African plums to neighbouring countries, including Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the DR Congo. A further 30 businesses are air freighting fresh fruit to Europe, and one company is sending dried safou to Switzerland and the United States.

Date published: July 2007


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