Europe Recognizes Health Benefits of Baobab Fruit

by VR Sreeraman on Aug 10 2008 11:46 AM

In Senegal, villagers have always known about the health benefits of baobab fruit, which only now have been discovered by Europe in what could spell magic for localities like Fandene.

The ancient, hardy species also known as the "tree of life" is scattered across the African savannah, some said to date back to the time of Christ.

Locals use nearly every part of the tree, whose processed fruit was approved for European import last month.

"You use the monkey bread fruit if you have a belly ache," said farmer Aloyse Tine, using the local name for baobab fruit. "If you're tired you eat the leaves, they are good for you."

The seeds can be pressed to extract oil used for cooking and the bark can be used to make ropes. In the past, the hollow bark was also used to bury "griots", a special West African cast of poets, musicians and sorcerers.

Farmer Tine, like others, used to lug his fruit to sell in the market in the nearby town of Thies.

Three years ago, he started selling instead to the Baobab Fruit Company, a Senegalese firm run by three Italians. It is the country's only industrialised producer of dried baobab fruit pulp, which it exports for use in cosmetics and certain dietary supplements.

The new income has already made changes. It "allows me to send my kids to school," he said.

Enter PhytoTrade Africa, a non-governmental organisation that focuses on developing fair trade and environmentally sustainable natural products.

Sensing potential, it launched in 2006 the process that would open European Union markets to this nutritious African oddity. Under EU rules, any "novel" food -- one not commonly consumed in Europe before 1997 -- requires special approval for use in the 27-member bloc.

"Approval for the baobab is fantastic news for Africa," said PhytoTrade's Cyril Lombard after the EU decision.

"Opening the European market to this product will make a real difference to poor rural communities there, offering them a potentially life-changing source of income."

One of these is Thiawe Thiawe, where 41-year-old Delphine farms some 20 baobab trees scattered outside her house.

"I've collected the fruits since I was a little girl with my grandmother," she told AFP. Like Tine, her life is a little easier since she started selling to the Baobab Fruit company rather than hawking her own goods.

"It's better to sell here than there, you don't have to wear yourself out going to Thies."

The Baobab Fruit Company says it already sees a spike in interest from Europe, where the pulp will likely be used in cereal bars and health drinks.

"Now we collect 150 to 200 tonnes of baobab fruit each harvest. In the last weeks there has been an explosion in demand," Laudana Zorzella told AFP at the factory in Thies.

"We are thinking we will need a much bigger harvest next time," she said. "In Senegal alone we estimate we could collect 13 thousand tonnes of fruit."

But what can baobab fruit, also known as monkey's bread, bring to health-conscious Europe?

According to the International Centre for Underutilized Crops at the University of Southhampton, the baobab is "a fruit of the future", rich in vitamin C, B1, B2 and calcium and chock-full of anti-oxidants.

In Senegal, its pulp is mostly used to make Bouye, a milky, tart juice made by boiling the pulp and seeds with water and sugar.

Some scientists calculate the fruit has three times as much vitamin C as oranges and has more calcium than a glass of milk.

And the tree is well adapted to arid conditions, tolerating both drought and poorly drained soil, and is fire resistant. Also known as the "upside down tree" for its bulbous trunk and spindly branches that look like roots, it can grow to be hundreds if not thousands of years old.

A study for PhytoTrade Africa conducted by the Natural Resources Institute in Britain suggested that wild harvesting of baobab fruit could generate trade of up to one billion dollars (640 million euros) a year for African producers.

Some environmentalists fear such commercial exploitation could lead to extinction of the iconic tree.

But Zorzella dismissed this, stressing that her company uses only the fruit and leaves the tree intact. "And if it becomes an important revenue the farmers will know that they have to protect the tree," she said.

In Fandene, Aloyse said this lesson has already been learned. As new baobabs sprout spontaneously, they are protected and allowed to grow.

"There are cattle herders that cut the leaves (to feed their animals) but we are starting to stop them now. That's not good because we need the trees to produce fruit," he said.

After the EU's approval, "everybody is asking for our products so they can test them," Zorzella said.

She estimated Europe's major food companies would need up to eight months for research and development before consumers there can actually get their own sip of a baobab smoothie or health bar.