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Baobab and marula - Zimbabwe's top tips for success

Isaac Mudenda is growing rosella for use in herbal teas and other foods (© HWA)
Isaac Mudenda is growing rosella for use in herbal teas and other foods

While Baobab trees enjoy iconic status as a symbol of Africa, their furry-skinned fruit contain a seed-covering pulp with some properties that are attracting more than just admiring looks. Containing more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk and more antioxidants than Chinese 'superfruit' Goji berry, Baobab has recently been identified by researchers in Zimbabwe as one of the country's top underutilised plants, with the potential to earn significant income for families living in drought-prone areas. Now, with funding from USAID and the EC, a public-private partnership is working to commercialise production and processing of ten of the country's wild plant species, as well as a variety of high value crops, for local and global markets - food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical.

The partnership harnesses the skills and interests of three organisations. Hilfswerk Austria International (HWA) is an NGO with a mandate to improve livelihoods among Zimbabwe's rural smallholders; Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe (BIZ) is a non-profit, membership based organisation that comprises private companies and NGOs with an interest in developing the commercial potential of underutilised plants; and KAITE, a Zimbabwean company, promotes smallholder production of organic staple foods and high value crops for export. In partnership since 2011, they are now working with 3,200 wild collectors and farmers, 80 per cent of whom are women, to supply a wide range of raw materials and processed products.

Maximising marula

Memory Mukamuri is a wild collector in the southern Chivi district. Four year ago she joined a group that collects marula fruit, extracts the kernels and nuts and produces marula oil, nuts and nut butter, for sale to local companies and individuals. However, despite receiving training in harvesting, oil extraction and processing techniques, the group faced considerable challenges. With no access to international markets or certification, their sales remained very low, and they struggled with technology and product quality.

In 2012 Memory was able to earn US$450 from her marula activities (© HWA/S Weninger)
In 2012 Memory was able to earn US$450 from her marula activities
© HWA/S Weninger

With input from the partnership, production and processing have significantly improved, and in 2012, Memory was able to earn US$450 from her marula activities. She also dreams of improving the technology used by the group. "I went to Swaziland in 2012 on a 'look and learn' tour," she says. "It really was an eye opener. The groups we visited are using advanced machines and we hope to follow suit in the near future."

The partnership's activities begin with research, identifying the species with highest potential for commercialisation. Less than one per cent of Zimbabwe's nearly 6,000 plants are currently exploited commercially, but up to 20 per cent are likely to have some commercial potential. The process continues with the development of marketable products from the most promising species, followed by work to create a market for those products, locally, regionally and globally.

Once the market is assured, certified organic and fair trade value chains are built with local collectors like Memory and with farmers who are ready to cultivate new, high value crops. In Binga district, in the west of the country, farmers such as Isaac Mudenda are now growing rosella (Hibiscus sabdariffa), bought by the KAITE company for use in herbal teas and other foods. Mudenda expects to earn at least US$400 a year from his hectare of rosella, also growing finger millet and sorghum for home consumption.

Sharing lessons - production, processing and marketing

At the NUS 2013 meeting in Ghana, the project shared lessons from its first three years in operation. These included the need to invest in innovative and sustainable harvesting and production technologies in order to improve competitiveness, the need for expert input and investment in both product and market development, and the key role of private companies in the enterprise. In terms of processing, it was found that working in groups has been highly beneficial to wild collectors, but that despite this, the quality and hygiene standards required for export markets made it very difficult for value addition to be done in the village. Meanwhile, successful targeting of international markets demanded input along the whole value chain, from collectors to end users, with certification a key requirement.

Baobab fruit contain more vitamin C than oranges (© HWA)
Baobab fruit contain more vitamin C than oranges

"The potential of these species will not be realised unaided," says Gus Le Breton, BIZ chief executive officer. "There is need to identify the unique selling points of each, and facilitate concentrated investment in product development, trial marketing, consumer awareness, and production and yield trials," he adds. But, he argues, given the current focus of international markets on Africa, and on 'natural' and ethical trade, the time for such investment has never been better.

Legislation needed

Le Breton also emphasises the vital need for legislation on harvesting of wild plants. In the absence of policies on benefit sharing, for example, private companies and NGOs are in danger of being accused of 'looting' natural species from the wild. Collectors need to be organised, with facilitation and encouragement from relevant government ministries, and representative platforms are needed to address a range of issues: development of legislation; coordination of research on plant properties, products and standards; and improved communication between smallholders, processors, research and government.

"In rebuilding Zimbabwe's agricultural sector," says Le Breton "we need to play to our strengths, and our biodiversity is one of them. The biggest obstacle to developing this potential is our own mindsets … or simply ignorance on the part of consumers and policymakers."

Date published: November 2013


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