Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Baobab tree holds out promise for Malawi’s farmers and forests

Demand for powder from the ‘superfruit’ could boost farmers’ incomes, slow deforestation and protect biodiversity 
• Gallery: baobab, the ‘superfruit’ that hails from humble roots
• Quiz: from quinoa to baobab: do you know your ‘superfoods’?
• Recipes: share ideas for baobab and superfood creations

Sitting in his well-ordered office on the outskirts of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, Chris Dohse reflects on the metamorphosis of the mango. How, he asks, did the once-exotic south Asian fruit achieve high street ubiquity, reinventing itself as everything from a cheesecake and smoothie to salsa and skin cream?
“Somebody must have looked at the mango and said: ‘Here’s an interesting product. We’d like to develop new markets and new outlets’,” he says. “They must have said, ‘What is it that the Europeans like?’” But while its commercial trajectory fascinates the 49-year-old German entrepreneur, the mango is not his concern. As the sachets of powder, tubs of lotion, jars of jam, and bottles of juices and liqueurs that line his shelves testify, his hopes – and his money – are on a rather more niche fruit: baobab.
When it was first licensed for the European food market six years ago, baobab was – with a certain inevitability –proclaimed a superfood to rival quinoa, blueberries and kale. Its yellow-green, suede-soft pods contain a dry pulp that has more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more potassium than a banana, more magnesium than spinach, and more iron than red meat. And then there is the tree that bears it. The baobabattracts myths and legends, just as its flowers draw the bats that pollinate them.
In many versions, its distinctive, capillary-like branches were, once upon a time, its roots. Angered by the baobab’s grumbles about the beauty and fecundity of other trees, the gods silenced it by tearing it from the soil and planting it upside down. As Dohse puts it: “When you talk of African icons – the Masai warriors, Kilimanjaro, elephants – the baobab is one of them.” Today, its fruit can be found on the shelves of British and European shops, in chocolate, cereal bars, jams, sauces and even gin. At the end of September, the Eden Project in Cornwall holds its second baobab festival.
Dohse, who is the managing director of the Malawi-based companyTreeCrops – which buys and processes baobab and other wild-plant products – believes the world’s appetite for the tangy fruit is sharpening. Over the past 13 months, he has sold more than 50 tonnes of baobab powder to his South African distributor and to the local market, where it is used to flavour drinks and ice lollies and sprinkled over porridge. However, his interests extend beyond the balance sheet. A forester by training, he came to Malawi in 2000 to work for the German Development Service on a project to safeguard the country’s natural resources. As the Malawian market for baobab drinks and lollies took off, Dohse realised that the fruit could have an international appeal.
He also realised that the commercialisation of the baobab could provide rural communities with a financial incentive to protect their woodlands and act as a bulwark against deforestation in a country that is losing its trees at a rate of around 3% a year as people clear land for firewood and farming. Evidence of that clearing is not hard to come by: the air around Lilongwe’s crowded markets and bougainvillea-lined suburbs smells of woodsmoke. A couple of hours’ drive south-east, towards Lake Malawi, flames flare through hillside forests and the air scratches at the throat and eyes as smoke softens the horizon... read more: