baobab emerges as next super-food and big industry

The African Baobab fruit is being dubbed the world’s next super food in 2010. Yet in Coastal and Eastern provinces this most mystical of trees, now promising a $1bn cash crop, is losing ground to urban growth and much more ordinary agriculture.

Research by the Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI) Centre in Kibwezi, found the Baobab population in Kenya at some 21 to 25 stems in its indigenous habitats - scattered across Rift Valley, Coast and Eastern provinces - by 2007. But, the centre claims, this is far down from where the tree once was.

David Muchiri, director, estimates that even in the last two years the numbers per hectare could have dropped by another one baobab per hectare. Whereas, ten to twenty years ago, hundreds of Baobabs dotted parts of Voi, Tsavo East, Mtito Andei in Coast Province and Makindu in Eastern Province. As well as agriculture, rapid urbanization on the road leading to Mombasa has been blamed for the decline, said Bernard Kigomo, the deputy director in charge of research at KEFRI.

The roll-back of the tree has come at a poor time in terms of fortune, however, with the tree's fruit as a source of processed nutrients now gaining mileage in the Europe and UK. Late July last year, the US Food Drug and Administration (FDA) approved the baobab fruit to be imported to the US by PhytoTrade Africa based in Zimbabwe and UK. The move came a year after the European Commission allowed PhytoTrade Africa to import the fruit to Europe. Elements in the fruit pulp will be used in the manufacture of healthier food and drinks

A 2007 study by Britain’s Natural Resources Institute projected the fruit had the potential to earn Africa, $1 billion yearly and employ and provide steady income to 2.5 million households most of them African Bush dwellers.

The fruit has powerful antioxidants in iron and potassium and medicinal ingredients that cure fevers and diarrhea. Its Vitamin C supplements are medically proven to have nutritional value six times greater than those in oranges and its calcium supplements are twice as high as in milk. Sailors in early times used the fruit to ward off scurvy. The fruit has a citric taste similar to Orange or Lemon.

The baobab’s abstract appearance and superstition attached to it has anyway seen it acquire a cult status within East and West Africa. It’s dubbed the Tree Of Life and Upside Down tree which for past centuries has been as source of food for Africa’s indigenous people. It’s estimated the African Baobab can clock 5000 years. A fully mature baobab with a trunk of 12 meters in diameter researchers say can hold in its hollow trunks and succulent stem 120,000 liters of water.

But as the Tree of Life now gets taken up by the western food supplements industry, only Masongaleni and Kibwezi in Eastern Province still sustain the dense numbers, into hundreds per hectare, of baobubs. Which may be because these peoples have always understood more about this tree – although some call it superstition.

“In Kibwezi people believe if you cut the tree you die,” said David Muchiri, KEFRI Center Director. While, in other areas towards the Coast, farmers cultivate around it without uprooting it.

It now seems that for those who have respected the tree of life, a new door is opening.

One can get the dried baobabs fruits at Nakumatt Westgate or contact David Muchiri of KEFRI for fresh ones to be on season on March and April on 0721-700352.

Written By James Karuga for African Laughter