By Edward McAllister
Mangoule, SENEGAL, (Reuters)
Taerou Dieuhiou has been shinning barefoot up baobab trees in Senegal’s southern Casamance region to collect the oblong fruit since he was 15
Business has never been better. Inside the hard, green shell that dangles from the spindly branches of Africa’s most iconic tree is a citrussy pulp that has become a popular “superfood” in the United States and Europe.
Rich in vitamin C, calcium and magnesium, it can be ground into a powder, mixed into smoothies or sprinkled on porridge. Coca-Cola’s Innocent, U.K. yogurt maker Yeo Valley and U.S. wholesaler Costco are among the major brands to embrace baobab.
The imposing tree dots the dry African savannah from Senegal to Madagascar and can live for over a millennium. It can store thousands of liters of water and grow trunks so thick that one South African tree became a pub with a dart board that could hold 60 people.
Until recently baobabs were only tapped for local use but in a major business shift a small network of producers and suppliers has pushed the fruit’s profile abroad. While some experts question the boabab’s sustainability, demand has taken off.
“It is a better price now. Now I make more for each sack,” said the 31-year-old father of four. He climbs the trunks in ripped jeans and a t-shirt, gripping a long pole to dislodge the fruit from the outer branches. “It’s all I have.”
Exports of the hard-shelled fruit rose from 50 tonnes in 2013 to 450 tonnes in 2017, according to industry group the African Baobab Alliance. They are expected to reach 5000 tonnes by 2025, about 500 shipping containers a year. This would make it a $400 million industry.
The transformation has started to bring in much needed revenue to African farmers. Baobab des Saveurs, a small company with buyers in Australia and Canada pays Dieuhiou up to 10,000 CFA francs ($18) per sack, more than double what he received from local middlemen a few years ago.
“A GREAT AFRICAN TREE”
Slaves shipped from West Africa in the eighteenth century wore necklaces of baobab seeds for luck and to remind them of home. Today it is used locally to treat liver disease and malaria in rural Senegal. Herders in Niger mix it with grains to make gruel.
Goblets are made from the fruit’s empty shell, the bark is pound to make rope or cork, or flattened into roof tiles.
“The trunks are the bus shelter, water tank, lavatory, prison, tomb, hiding place, shade,” said Thomas Pakenham, an arborist and historian who wrote a book about the baobab. “It is the great tree of the African village.”