2. Africa: Traditional fruit appeals to new tastes (Mail & Guardian Online)

| September 29, 2008

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Aloyse Tine can readily explain the health benefits of baobab products. If you have a belly ache, you eat the baobab fruit, he says. If you are tired, you eat the baobab leaves.

Mr. Tine is a Senegalese farmer who has been selling baobab for many years. He used to haul baobab fruit from his rural community of Fandene to the market in nearby Thies. Three years ago, he started selling to a local company that dries and exports baobab fruit pulp. Selling to this firm – called the Baobab Fruit Company – boosted Mr. Tine’s income. He can now afford to send his children to school.

Farmers and wild fruit gatherers like Mr. Tine are poised to see demand for their product, and presumably their income, jump, now that Europeans have realized the nutritional value of baobab. Earlier this year, the European Union approved the import of dried baobab. The dried fruit is destined for cereal bars and health drinks.

Laudana Zorzella is one of the operators of the Baobab Fruit Company. She says there has been an “explosion in demand” for dried baobab fruit. Currently, the company purchases up to 200 tonnes of locally harvested fruit. But the company will be looking to collect a much larger harvest next season. Across Senegal, the company could take in as much as 13,000 tonnes of baobab fruit, Ms. Zorzella says.

The demand for baobab is driven by European health consciousness. Studies have shown that a serving of baobab fruit has three times as much vitamin C as an orange, more calcium than a glass of milk, and a slew of other vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants.

But some conservationists fear that, in the rush to get baobab to the European Union, the African tree could be overexploited. Although some farmers have cultivated the tree, most baobabs grow in the wild. Some are reputed to be thousands of years old. Improper fruit harvesting or lack of care to the environment surrounding the trees could hurt their survival and make them unavailable for local use.

Ms. Zorzella has no such concerns. She says that if baobab trees become a source of revenue, people will have a strong incentive to protect them. Mr. Tine says that people in his village are very protective of their baobab. He explains that, as new baobabs sprout spontaneously, care is taken to allow them to grow. Cattle herders often cut the baobab leaves for animal feed. Mr. Tine says that villagers are trying to stop this practice to ensure that the trees will produce fruit.

The baobab tree holds a central place in African life and lore. It’s sometimes called the “upside-down tree” because its spiny branches look almost like roots. One tale holds that, after the world was created, each animal was given a tree to plant, and the hyena planted the baobab upside-down. For centuries, all parts of the baobab tree have been used. While the fruit and leaves are eaten, the seeds are pressed to extract cooking oil and the bark can be used to make rope.
Click here to see the notes to broadcasters on baobab