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Novel approach for Allanblackia

Allanblackia fruit contain up to 50 seeds which provide high value oil (Novella Development Ghana)
Allanblackia fruit contain up to 50 seeds which provide high value oil
Novella Development Ghana

A new source of high quality edible oil is finding favour among growers and processors in five countries in Africa. Named after a Scottish botanist Allan Black, Allanblackia is a genus of nine species that grow in the tropical forest belt which stretches across West and East Africa. Bearing large fruits holding up to 50 seeds, the kernels contain oil which is high in stearic acid. Traditionally used by local communities for cooking and soap-making, this high value oil - far healthier than palm oil - has started to attract international attention.

To date, Allanblackia seeds have been supplied from the wild, but trees are not always easy to access and do not fruit every year. To increase supply and to provide local communities with an opportunity to grow Allanblackia on their homesteads, Unilever has supported the establishment of a private-public initiative, Novella Africa, to set up supply chains and to cultivate the trees for commercial seed production.

All nine species of Allanblackia are very similar and occur in lowland and upland rainforests. In West and Central Africa, most attention is currently focused on A. parviflora, and A. floribunda, which are frequently confused. In East Africa two other species, A. stuhlmannii and A. ulugurensis, which only occur in the eastern arc mountains of Tanzania, currently supply around 350 metric tonnes for commercial purposes.

Ghana takes the lead

Allanblackia nuts are dried before being processed (Daniel Ofori, FORIG)
Allanblackia nuts are dried before being processed
Daniel Ofori, FORIG

Of the five countries involved in Novella Africa (Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania), Ghana is where the initiative was launched and where some 200 communities are currently involved in the collection of wild seeds. The seeds are dried by the community before being transported to a local crusher for oil extraction. In each village, or group of villages, a contact person ensures that seeds are gathered and collectors are paid.

This provides some 150 tonnes of seed each year, yielding 50 tonnes of edible oil. A price for the seeds, which reflects the market value of the oil, is fixed at the start of the season, and is paid once the produce is confirmed as clean and dry. However, the principal research scientist at the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG), Dr Daniel Ofori, says that, "In Ghana, Unilever requires over two thousand metric tonnes of Allanblackia seed, and we cannot even supply 50 per cent of that requirement." But he adds, "It is the poor farmers in the rural communities who rely on Allanblackia, so if we can produce more, then we can provide more cash to the farmers."

From conservation to cultivation

First established in 2003, the Novella partnership originally assumed that wild harvesting would be sufficient to satisfy international demand, so Unilever along with IUCN (World Conservation Union) focused on producing sustainable harvesting guidelines. However, whilst millions of trees exist in natural forests, the trees are dioecious (separate male and female plants) and they do not flower or fruit every year, which makes annual production unpredictable.

On-farm cultivation and propogation methods are increasing the supply of seeds (Novella Development Ghana)
On-farm cultivation and propogation methods are increasing the supply of seeds
Novella Development Ghana

The focus for Allanblackia production has therefore shifted to include cultivation of trees on-farm. The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), working with partners including FORIG, has been investigating how to propagate the species. This work, Ofori emphasises, has involved working with farmers to further scientists' knowledge of growth rates, and the ages at which the trees first produce flowers and fruit. The seeds are notoriously difficult to germinate but vegetative propagation techniques such as rooting (juvenile cuttings), grafting and marcotting of mature trees, initially developed by ICRAF in Cameroon, have now been extended to Ghana and Nigeria.

Initially, having observed that some trees do not flower for up to 15 years, farmers were not particularly interested in cultivating Allanblackia. But, on informing communities that material is being developed to flower within two-to-three years, Ofori reports that more and more interest is being shown in the domestication of the tree. Six satellite nurseries have now been established in Ghana, where community members are trained to set up their own nurseries for producing good quality planting material. By 2008, over 40,000 Allanblackia seedlings had been grown in Ghana and Tanzania, for planting in farmers' fields.

Developing the supply chain

Establishing an effective supply chain is another important part of Novella's activities in each of the five countries. This has been quite successful in Ghana, but further efforts are required to establish an effective supply chain in other countries of the region. In Ghana, the partnership works with local businesses to provide transport and processing of the seeds for oil. This is then exported to Rotterdam as crude fat, for use in food products and detergents.

By 2017, the Novella partnership aims to have engaged up to 200,000 farmers in planting 25 million trees, in order meet commercial demand. It is expected that this will result in an estimated doubling of household income to US$175 per annum. "There is a huge opportunity," enthuses Ofori. "Unilever is buying all the oil now, but other companies phone me from Europe and the US wanting to buy Allanblackia nuts. Once we have the demand, we can easily get the network moving."

With contributions from: Kofi Adu Domfeh

Date published: July 2009


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