In 2015, the health industry had its eyes firmly set on the baobab fruit with baobab products popping up in various health food stores in the West in addition to a sharp demand in raw baobab powder.
Why the sudden interest in the baobab?
Baobab trees are undeniably one of Gambia’s most well-known symbols. Also known as the monkey-bread tree or upside down tree among other nomenclatures, the baobab tree is known for its strength, endurance and longevity. They can survive for thousands of years, adapt well to arid regions due to their water retention capabilities and produce fruit jam-packed with nutritional and medicinal qualities.
In The Gambia, baobab fruit is used to make juices, ice cream, porridge as well as eaten in it dry chalky form. It is also used medicinally in certain parts to treat ailments ranging from fever to body aches. Truly multifunctional, the baobab tree is also used to make ropes/fishing lines and to feed livestock in addition to providing shelter.
Baobab trees are deeply embedded in the lives of local communities as many believe that the tree’s spirit provides protection to those within its vicinity- in addition to providing them an ample source of nutrition and livelihood.
In the West however, it seems the food industry is only interested in the nutritional value of the fruit, especially the fact that it ticks every box on the superfoods checklist.
The white, powdery fruit is known to be incredibly rich in antioxidants, potassium and other nutrients, with its claim to be fame being that it has six times as much vitamin C as oranges and double the amount of calcium in milk. And not to be outdone, the trees leaves provide nutritional benefits of their own, providing a great source of potassium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and more. The seeds? Packed full of protein.
It is easy to see why baobab is all the rage at the moment but remembering where the trees come from and the intricate link between them and the livelihoods of the communities they grow in is of profound importance.
The baobab hails from a delicate ecosystem and conditions for producing the tree are hard to replicate elsewhere, thus the high reliance on exportation.
The tree is neither grown agriculturally nor has it been properly domesticated. Locals harvest only as much fruit as they need and maintain the trees natural production cycle.
Mass demand for the baobab would entail mass production, requiring it to be planted as a crop in large-scale farms. Farms located in the plant’s natural habitat, the arid regions also called home to many communities who would have their land taken over by the baobab export industry.
While it is certainly possible to maintain a balance between a thriving community and small scale baobab plantations, the fact of the matter is, the plantations could potentially rob the community of the non-nutritional uses of the baobab, reduce their own consumption of the fruit and see workers being paid far less for their hard work than what exporters earn.
Regulations allowing for a fair market with farmers earning fair wages for their work would have to be put into place, in addition to laws that protect the tree’s environment and helps prevent any potential genetic modifications.
For now, the best thing we as consumers can do is if the West- educate ourselves on the origins of the baobab products we purchase and if local- support local export industries who are more likely to pay fair wages and understand and respect the cultural significance of the baobab.