Those who paid close attention in French lessons or who like to read to children may still remember the sinister threat reported by “The Little Prince” in the cult fairy tale of the same name: The seeds of huge baobabs are sprouting on their home planet B612, the widely ramified roots of which explode the asteroid could leave. And to prevent this catastrophe, the boy has to consistently destroy all the offspring of the giant trees every day.
Baobab is an icon of Africa
Adanson trees or baobabs are not an invention of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, they actually exist. Baobabs are native to mainland Africa, Madagascar and Australia and belong to the mallow family. There are eight types in total. The trees sometimes also grow in India, Malaysia or the Caribbean - and if you want to test your botanical skills in our latitudes, you can go to the Styrian raw materials trader, for example Biomega Order baobab seeds and experiment with growing them in a flower pot.
Aside from famous French history, baobabs have a pretty good reputation. The plant, up to 30 meters high, is revered as the tree of life, as an apothecary tree or as a symbol of the savannah. There are baobabs in South Africa and Madagascar, which tourists take long journeys to visit.
And some people are so impressed that they dedicate their own websites to the tree, as Heike Pander did baobabstories.com or like the journalist Marc Engelhardt, who immediately wrote a 140-page declaration of love. “The huge, misshapen baobab, which seems to grow up towards the sky with its roots, is an African wonder. It offers people south of the Sahara not only food, but also an almost immeasurable reservoir of water and wisdom, ”writes Engelhardt in his book“ Baobab ”, recently published in Matthes & Seitz publishing house. In it he reports on the legends and myths surrounding the iconic tree. One story goes that the baobab was one of the first living things to be created, but was so dissatisfied and demanding that God angrily grabbed it and stuck it upside down in the earth - which would explain the tree's distinctive "head-over" look.
The baobab is also extraordinary in other ways: it can live for well over a thousand years, thrives in the driest areas and stores large amounts of water in the rainy season, which make the trunk swell thickly. Engelhardt reports that it has a storage capacity of up to 150.000 liters, the nickname bottle tree aptly describes it: "Not only animals benefit from this water, entire villages have survived with it." Baobabs like to eat and thus also promote its spread: When hiking through intestinal tracts, the indigestible seeds are softened and can ultimately germinate better.
Baobab: superfood from Africa
Traditionally, the fruits of the baobab are used as well as leaves and bark. African healers rely on baobab as a medical all-rounder for rheumatism and back pain, for the desire to have children and malaria, for gastrointestinal complaints and inflammation. The taste of the pulp is described as a sour mixture of grapefruit, pear and vanilla. "The fruits polarize because of their very own taste," says Biomega boss Martin Späth, who has been exporting Baonane powders and oils to Europe for many years in close cooperation with the Senegalese baobab producer (see also corporAID article "Rare oils from Senegal") In Africa itself, the baobab fruit pieces are especially popular with children - they can be enjoyed pure or, as is common in Kenya, as a bright red colored “Mabuyu” sweet. Powdered, the pulp is often added to drinks.
From a nutritional point of view, there is a lot to be said for it: The fruit is rich in vitamin C, B vitamins, potassium, calcium and phosphorus and is considered a good source of fiber. It is said to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, slow down the rise in blood sugar levels and promote intestinal health - all of this makes baobab an African superfood. “The fruit also consists of 90 percent seeds. These have a rather low oil content. But it is ideal for skin and hair care, ”says Späth. The seeds are also in the name: Baobab is derived from the Arabic expression “buhobab” and means “fruit with many seeds”.
Tree with all-rounder qualities
Baobab trees are endemic to Madagascar, Africa and Australia in eight species, but only the "Adansonia digitata" species, which is widespread on the African mainland, has international commercial relevance. In Europe, baobab fruit powder and oil are approved; they are processed into food as well as health and personal care products. The powder can be stirred into liquids or added to food. Companies such as Pepsi and Coca Cola have also launched soft drinks and smoothies with baobab as special editions, but mostly baobab foods come from small suppliers. Manufacturers of personal care products use the golden yellow oil ("Adansonia Digitata Seed Oil") because it is stable, well absorbent and relatively odorless. It is cold-pressed from the kidney-shaped seeds and is characterized, among other things, by a high content of palmitic and linoleic acid. After the oil has been extracted, the remaining seed cake can be used as animal feed. The leaves, flowers, bark, roots and fibers of the baobab are also used in Africa. The leaves can be eaten fresh, prepared like spinach or used to make soups. Cups can be made from the shell, glue can be mixed with the pollen and the fibrous bark can be processed into ropes and nets. Canoes, boards or floats (for fishing nets) are made from the wood.
Because baobab grows wild in many places and the fruit therefore usually costs nothing in rural areas, baobab products are often considered “nothing special”, says plant expert Gus Le Breton, who works with his company based in Zimbabwe "B'Ayoba" Manufactures and exports baobab powder. In Zimbabwe, says Le Breton, the fruit has a “stigma of poor people's food”: “Even if baobab is just being rediscovered due to its health effects, a guest would be offered a western product rather than baobab. The latter would be a sign that you have no money. "
Pioneering work in Europe
Baobabs are found in more than 30 countries south of the Sahara. There are said to be around 28 million trees on the continent, but Le Breton believes this frequently quoted estimate is “far too low”, with around five million trees in Zimbabwe alone. Incidentally, baobabs are not attractive for cultivation in the plantation: "They need eight decades to bear fruit, no agricultural company waits that long," says Le Breton. In addition, a large part of the fruits that fall completely dried from the tree at the end of the ripening process are not used today anyway.
Interview with Gus Le Breton, African Baobab Alliance
This is precisely where companies and development cooperation have long seen huge potential: "The fruits have outstanding properties, they grow in very dry areas with little economic opportunities, and there are more than enough of them," summarizes Le Breton. He is also the chairman of the African Baobab Alliance, an association of producers, processing companies, dealers and brand manufacturers who together want to make the powder made from the pulp better known and who are also committed to its quality assurance and fair trade. While baobab oil has been used by the cosmetics industry for around 20 years, the powder has been approved as a food in Europe and the USA for more than ten years (in the EU as “novel food”). Baobab is always declared as "Adansonia digitata" on packaging. What is meant is the African mainland species, which is the only one traded internationally and mainly exported from Senegal, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The seven other baobab species do not play a major role.
Small baobab success story
Great Britain is one of the strongest sales markets in Europe today. “When we started in 2012, even the buyers in the health food stores had never heard of baobab. Consumers' knowledge was also close to zero, ”recalls Andrew Hunt, CEO of the British importer Aduna, to arduous pioneering work. Aduna is a member of the African Baobab Alliance and has invested heavily in marketing, for example in a “Make Baobab Famous” campaign.
At the beginning, they mainly addressed nutrition-conscious consumers and positioned baobab as a superfood, today they are increasingly trying to inspire large companies, says Hunt. Biomega boss Späth, also part of the Alliance, primarily serves customers in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. “The demand for oil and fruit is growing slowly but steadily. And especially in Austria there are a number of manufacturers who produce high-quality products and sell them well. ”Baobab is definitely a success story for Späth, even though the market is still very small and wholesale prices for baobab are lower today than ten years ago.
Le Breton also gives estimates that point to good growth - on a manageable basis: “While around 2010 tons of powder were exported from Africa in 38, we were more than ten times that amount with 2020 tons in 450. And for this year we are expecting up to 550 tons. ”For baobab oil, he is currently assuming around 25 tons per year, and the export volume will double in the next three years. There are no reliable figures on the overall market for baobab products, according to Le Breton, because there is hardly any data on production and consumption in the producing countries - but in countries like Sudan and Senegal these are “considerable amounts”. And some of it ends up abroad, Späth explains the so-called gray exports. “Before Corona there was a lot of travel activity by the diaspora between Senegal and Italy, Spain and France. Often people were traveling with many kilos of baobab products in their suitcases, which were certainly significant in total. "
Baobab: ready for more
While Corona clearly restricted informal exports, the pandemic is showing positive effects on demand. At least that's what Klaas Koolman, who runs his food start-up, reports Berlin Organics has been selling baobab powder from B'Ayoba in Europe since 2015. “People are increasingly looking for foods that strengthen their immune system. Baobab can score here. ”Another advantage is that the powder can be easily incorporated into everyday life by adding it to smoothies, juices or yoghurts. And yet: Baobab is still an everyday product for a few people in Europe and is hardly present in the production halls of large food manufacturers. With the exception of "limited editions" for drinks or yoghurts, the latter do not dare to eat African superfood, regrets Le Breton.
The alliance members have different theories as to why this is so. One guess is that the powder looks rather unspectacular, which makes it difficult to market. Another is that to this day consumers do not know the taste and therefore do not ask about it. In addition, there are still too few scientific studies that deal with the health benefits of eating baobab, which means that providers can only advertise with "health claims" to a limited extent. Last but not least, there could also be “a lack of confidence in the ability to deliver and comparatively high purchase prices,” says Späth. In contrast to traditional export raw materials such as coffee or cocoa, as mentioned, there are no plantations. The wild fruit is collected and processed locally. However, Le Breton is convinced that the delivery quantities can be increased quickly with increasing demand, and that the African Baobab Alliance has established standards so that buyers can count on uniform quality also helps. Whether, with the increasing popularity of baobab, a billion-dollar market could emerge at some point, as the World Economic Forum WEF did in a video entitled a few weeks ago "This African fruit could be the next global superfood" has suggested is currently difficult to answer. “That still takes a lot of time and marketing,” says Le Breton.
The reactions to the video were ambivalent. Some people were euphoric, others were concerned that increased commercial use would lead to environmental degradation. The Alliance wants to dispel such worries. Aduna, Biomega or B'Ayoba all rely on fair cooperation and organic certification. And they explain that the consumption of baobab in particular has a positive effect: “It creates new sources of income for people in poor regions. And that means that the trees are more protected than before, ”says Koolman. If you buy baobab, you are not threatening baobabs (see also Aduna's video below). And that the tree itself could be a threat, that is only in a French story anyway.