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Baobab - trading the once-forbidden fruit

The baobab tree has long been symbolic of the African landscape (PhytoTrade Africa)
The baobab tree has long been symbolic of the African landscape
PhytoTrade Africa

The distinctive, skeletal silhouette of the baobab tree has long been regarded as symbolic of the African landscape. But few outside Africa had heard about baobab fruit until it suddenly appeared in the media spotlight in mid-2008, heralded as a "superfood" that could soon be available in the European Union (EU). Now the work of bringing the fruit to Europe's lucrative health food market from small African producers is in full swing.

The large greenish-brown fruits of the baobab (Adansonia digitata) have been harvested from the wild in Africa for centuries. The soft, pale, powdery pulp is extremely nutritious, containing high levels of vitamin C, calcium, vitamin B complex, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and complex carbohydrates, earning it a reputation as a "superfruit". In countries like Malawi the pulp is used widely as an ingredient in the drink malambe, and it is a common ingredient in children's porridges across Southern Africa.

But, apart from the whole baobab fruits that have previously slipped under the radar and ended up in local markets in Paris and London, for example, EU Novel Food legislation has meant that baobab is an African treasure that rarely left the continent. These rules state that foods not imported into the trade bloc prior to 1997 require special permission following an exhaustive application process and a number of regulatory hoops, primarily to ensure consumer safety.

Scaling 'Fortress Europe'

Non-profit trade association PhytoTrade Africa was willing to invest the money, time and effort to try and secure the legal approval they believed baobab deserved. The association, which represents tens of thousands of producers in eight southern African countries, spent some US$285,000 and four years putting together their case and lobbying the EU. "We started off looking at plant species that were in abundance in the region and that had potential for commercialisation," explains the organisation's Lucy Welford. Baobab was both abundant and had a long history of traditional use.

The pulp of the baobab fruit is highly nutritious (PhytoTrade Africa)
The pulp of the baobab fruit is highly nutritious
PhytoTrade Africa

The hard work paid off in July 2008 when the EU finally approved imports of baobab from PhytoTrade Africa's members, and a market worth an estimated US$500m was created overnight. The processed fruit is now being targeted at Europe's burgeoning health food market where the dried pulp will be used in cereal bars and 'smoothie' drinks. Due to the fruit's high pectin content, it is already being used to produce chilli sauces and jam.

Trading up

With demand for baobab suddenly on the rise in Europe, African producers - who are mostly women - are beginning to see their incomes rise. "One woman from southern Malawi was delighted because she had just bought herself a bed for the first time in her life," says Welford. The organisation is committed to providing its members with ongoing technical training to ensure baobab is harvested, stored and distributed sustainably and to help producers achieve organic and Fairtrade status.

"This is really an exercise in supply chain management from the smallest rural producer to the largest global corporation - and everything in between," continues Welford. "Past attempts haven't got to grips with the regulatory environment that you have to tackle in order to bring the product to market. This is one of the services we provide to our members: it would have been very difficult for them to pull this off on their own."

Branching out

Now consumers in Europe can enjoy one of Africa's best-kept secrets (PhytoTrade Africa)
Now consumers in Europe can enjoy one of Africa's best-kept secrets
PhytoTrade Africa

Approval in the EU could mean that baobab fruit becomes as familiar to European shoppers as other exotic products, like mango, and similar regulatory approval is being sought in the United States. The fruit might even become a key ingredient in a uniquely African sports beverage to be produced in preparation for the World Cup football championships in South Africa in 2010.

Phytotrade Africa plans to introduce a number of other novel foods into the EU in the future. These and other PhytoTrade Africa ingredients will be pitched at markets in the developed world, including the food and beverage, cosmetics and health food sectors. While the process is expensive and time consuming, the regulatory success with baobab has put wind in the organisation's sails: "Baobab is a good news story from Africa," enthuses Welford, who expects baobab products to be in EU supermarkets by the end of 2009. "We were out in the field recently and there were big smiles on everyone's faces because they knew that this long process had finally come to an end. Now they can share one of Africa's best-kept secrets with consumers in Europe."

Date published: January 2009


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