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September 2005

Article

 

Taste Them - don't waste them.

Dr Garth Cambray

 

In Africa, many of the staple foods that we eat are not indigenous to Africa. However, we are blessed with a huge diversity of commercialisable indigenous food products. Some of these have been commercialised outside our continent and the products are exported back to us.

In many cases, forests with great species diversity are cleared to grow crops. Non wood forest products from uncleared forest regions can in some cases provide better and more sustainable income opportunities.

In this article we will explore the potential of two African forest products to contribute to employment creation and conservation.

The baobab tree, (Adansonia digitata) is synonymous with sub-tropical and tropical Africa. It can live for thousands of years. In the wet months it grows leaves and stores copious water in its thick fibrous trunk. In the dry months it sheds its leaves and uses stored water to survive.

The tree can be used for its fibre, the leaves can be used to make jam, and the fruits can be eaten. Baobabs are excellent housing providers to honeybees as they frequently contain big nooks and crannies in which bees can build nests.

However, in much of Africa, the baobab is threatened by growth in human populations - the age old 'pretty tree vs field of food' question is resulting in these big old trees being removed. But if one can find a way of turning the tree into a source of income, then, it will stay and be cared for.

The Malambe Fruit Juice company in Malawi has developed a way of making a tasty fruit juice out of the fruits of the baobab. In fact, the name Malambe actually means baobab.

Throughout Africa the problem exists that capital flows to cities where people exist in comparative luxury to that of rural areas. Most food and consumer goods are imported and very little money is paid to people in rural areas for their produce as they don't sell much to the cities. By establishing rural industries which provide services to the cities, some money returns to rural economies and the wheel begins to turn.

Baobab fruit are harvested in rural areas and the juice is extracted and marketed. About 4000 bottles of Malambe juice are produced per month, allowing rural people to earn a living. The juice is very healthy having 8 times more vitamin C than orange juice and also containing a lot of iron. Baobabs are also entirely organic plants.

If Malambe Juice were to acquire an international market, the baobab, that great symbol of African plants, would begin to slowly reverse the flow of money from poor to rich areas and ensure that in 100 years time we will still be able to enjoy these gentle giant trees.

In Zambia, the miombo woodlands produce many products. Three of these specifically are used in alcohol making. Alcohol, being a highly marketable commodity, allows these products to achieve good market values and contribute to the rural economy.

Throughout the region, beekeeping in traditional hives is well developed. Honey is harvested and the honey sugars are washed from the combs with water. The honey water is allowed to ferment to various types of traditional mead and is sold. The wax is rendered into pure wax blocks and also sold.

Bees require vast regions of plants with lots of flower to make honey. Hence, if beekeeping is viable, it encourages sustainable use of biodiversity to produce honey. The fact that honey equals alcohol helps drive this important conservation message home.

Two other products of the miombo woodlands are also important in producing alcohol.

The roots of the plant Rhynchosia insignis, are used in preparing a special traditional beverage known as Munkoyo. The roots are gathered from plants growing in disturbed forest areas and are generally sold to brewers who in turn use them to make beer and sell that. The beer is made from maize, which is a rurally produced product. The beer itself is not of a highly alcoholic nature, but is nutritious and healthy. The fermentation increases levels of vitamin B in the beverage meaning it is better to consume than maize meal.

Another bush fruit plant Masuku, Uapaca kirkiana, has great potential. The National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research of Zambai  has developed a process to produce a wine from the Masuku fruit. The institute has conducted research into sustainable cropping of these trees and also investigated strain improvement to increase yield and palatability.

The Masuku wine has however not yet been commercialised. Should this happen, with correct marketing, the beverage has the potential to channel international money into the poorest and most needy parts of Zambia.


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