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July 22, 2008

Will the new trade in baobab fruit benefit or exploit Africa?

by Chido Makunike
The EU has approved baobab extract as an ingredient in various food products. This apparently follows years of lobbying by PhytoTrade Africa, described in press reports as “the southern Africa natural products trade association that represents companies wishing to export their dried baobab fruit.”
This means that for the first time the fruit of this iconic tree, Adamsonia digitata, will now be able to earn hard currency for African communities who have up to now only harvested it for various traditional, local uses. The baobab extract, said to be unusually high in Vitamin C content, will be used in specialty foods like cereal bars.
There are many things about this developing export niche that will only become clear with time. I don’t think anyone yet knows what the potential size of this new export niche will be although the phrase “billion dollar industry” has been thrown about.

The baobab tree’s life cycle can be hundreds of years. It is obviously not cultivated, so the extract falls in the realm of naturally-growing, simply harvested “agro-forestry” products. Countries will have to take steps to ensure that the new interest in baobab will not cause over-exploitation or misuse; to make sure that harvesting is done in a sustainable way.
But being a non-cultivated forest product, who “owns” the baobab fruit? Can anybody just take a truck into the forest, collect the fruit and export it? Obviously the sudden dramatic change in the economic importance of the baobab will open up many questions that will need regulation.
Despite the excitement about the new opportunities this development presents for communities in areas with lots of baobab trees, past experience shows that in the whole baobab “value chain” that will now develop, Africa might benefit the least. This is due to the many reasons that contribute to Africa not gaining maximally from its natural resources.

Africa mainly exports raw products, or those that have only undergone primary processing. Most of the profit margin in the baobab products chain will likely go to traders and processors abroad, with very little of the cost of the final product remaining in Africa. Yet baobab is a dry, not-easily perishable, easy to process fruit. It would not be difficult to have the “smoothies” and cereal bars that are being contemplated for its use made in Africa and exported as finished product, producing many downstream benefits and keeping more of the wealth to be generated within the continent.
While there is increasing talk in Africa about the need for value addition of its products, Europe for obvious reasons generally prefers to import raw or minimally processed products.
Still, whatever issues remain to be resolved before baobab fruit becomes a fully fledged export sub-sector for Africa, there is no doubt that this is an exciting development.

African Agriculture

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