It’s known as the baobab in English, sito in Mandinka, gwi in Wolof and Adansonia digitata in botanical circles. Sometimes it’s called the upside-down tree, because its weirdly shaped branches resemble roots. It was made famous in the West by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s fable “The Little Prince.”
In Africa, the baobab tree is steeped in mystique and surrounded by superstition. Many people believe that its spirit protects the community around it, and its tangible properties certainly nourish those who live near it. Parts of the tree are used to make rope and fishing line; to feed goats, sheep and cows; and to provide shelter, food and medicine.
While living in Gambia I saw parts of the baobab used to treat everything from malarial fever, infertility and asthma to headaches and toothaches. I have no idea if and how these local remedies worked, but all of a sudden the rest of the world — Western health food companies included — is catching on. There’s a growing belief that the baobab may be the world’s newest super food.
The tree’s white, powdery fruit is rich in antioxidants, potassium and phosphorus, and has six times as much vitamin C as oranges and twice as much calcium as milk. The leaves are an excellent source of iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum and phosphorus, and the seeds are packed with protein.
The baobab was approved for European markets last year, and the Food and Drug Administration is expected to follow suit soon. The fruit’s dry pulp will be sold as an ingredient in smoothies and cereal bars. Already, a small jar of African baobab jam made in England sells for around $11. According to the Natural Resources Institute in Britain, an international baobab industry could bring in about $1 billion a year and provide jobs for 2.5 million African families. On paper this sounds great, but there’s another side to the picture.
The baobab has never been a plantation tree; it grows wild in arid regions. (It can also be found in Australia, but it thrives in few other places outside Africa.) Presently people harvest only what they need and maybe a bit more to sell at local markets. If it becomes an international commodity, the baobab probably would need to be planted as a crop, even though arable soil is limited. The open land where local people now freely harvest wild baobab could be developed by agribusinesses into plantations, or else precious forests or farmland used to grow everyday staple crops could be turned over to the baobab export industry.
Although local people would probably find jobs on such farms, their ability to harvest or purchase the baobab themselves would be limited. They wouldn’t be able to pay as much as London dealers could. This means that some Africans could lose a source of household wealth, an important part of their diet and an essential pharmaceutical resource.
These possibilities — not to mention the threat of corruption, poor wages and genetic modification leading to a loss of the tree’s biodiversity — are not random predictions. Africa is no stranger to the overexploitation of its natural resources. But the solution isn’t necessarily to cut the baobab off from international markets. Regulations could be put in place to protect the tree, its environment and the people who depend on it — and still allow for profitable production.
The coffee trade provides a model. It’s clear that many consumers are willing to pay more for fairly traded coffee — which costs enough to provide the growers a decent wage for their labor. This bottom-up pricing should be applied to the baobab market, even if it means European health nuts have to pay a lot for their smoothies.
The baobab’s new popularity is exciting, but the European Union, the United States and African exporters should decide on regulations before the baobab is rushed to European and North American markets.
In Saint-Exupéry’s story, the planet the Little Prince lives on is too small to support the baobab. This is hardly our situation, but the Little Prince still has some useful advice for us: Taking care of your planet, he says, “is very tedious work, but very easy.
Dawn Starin, an anthropologist.