The iconic baobab (Adansonia digitata), is native to hot dry areas of Africa. Science explains the strange shape of the tree as being related to its amazing water storage ability, a more romantic traditional story credits the hyena who when asked by God to plant the tree, foolishly planted it upside down.
These giants dominate the landscape with huge trunks reaching 11m in diameter. The tree can store over 100 000 litres of water allowing it to thrive in harsh, arid conditions. So resilient is this tree that it can withstand regular bark-stripping by elephants which savour the succulent bark. People in dry parts of Zimbabwe take advantage of this adaptation stripping the bark for medicine as well as to weave into rope, rugs and baskets with few adverse effects to the tree.
All parts of the baobab tree (leaves, bark, roots, fruits and seeds) are used in traditional medicine but it is the oval fruits containing the prized pulp which has given the tree international acclaim amongst health food fans. The fruit are harvested from April to June and the extracted powder can be stored for many months. This powder has been part of a traditional Zimbabwean diet for probably thousands of years and today is enjoyed by rural and urban dwellers alike. Traditionally it is mixed with milk or water to make a refreshing drink or is added to porridge as flavouring. In urban areas baobab can be enjoyed as home-made ice lollies which are sold in most high density suburbs.
The nutritional value of the fruit powder is unsurpassed. While being low in fat and sugar, it is very high in fibre and rich in vitamins and minerals. The vitamin C content is equivalent to six oranges per 100g of baobab powder while calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium levels are also high. In addition to citric acid, baobab contains tartaric, malic and succinic acids, giving the pulp a distinctive flavour. The fruit also contains high levels of pectin, which is known to reduce blood sugar levels and is a useful agent in jam-making. Baobab pulp has a prebiotic effect, meaning that consumption promotes beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract. Due to its Vitamin C content the pulp has anti-oxidant properties twice as high as that of the well known super fruits pomegranate and cranberries.
The unique tangy flavour of baobab complements other fruits and is perfect to add a zing to yoghurt, cereal, pancakes, muffins, smoothies, ice-cream, sports drinks, tea or even plain water. The seeds can be crushed to produce high value oil for the cosmetics industry.
A lifeline for marginal communities
The superfood status of baobab is growing and its increased local and export market value is bringing relief to Zimbabwean communities where the climate and soils make agriculture a precarious livelihood option. The fruit is mainly harvested by women and its processing can easily be fitted into daily household routines making it a particularly female-friendly crop. The extra income brought in from baobab powder sales makes an important contribution to household economies particularly at a time of year when agricultural products are not widely available for sale and when farmers are not busy with crop production.
BioInnovation Zimbabwe (BIZ) have been working since 2012 to develop viable markets for baobab harvesters across Zimbabwe from Chipinge and Chimanimani, to Mount Darwin, Rushinga, Mudzi and UMP and north-west in Binga and Hwange with further expansion planned in Beitbridge, Chiredzi, and Mwenezi. Research done by BIZ has shown that the positive impacts on rural communities from the harvest and sale of baobab fruit have been substantial. Most of the income earned accrues to women, and is used to help finance household expenditure on food, education and healthcare. One of the BIZ supported harvesters during their survey in Chipinge remarked: ‘I grew up in this area with plenty of baobab. The fruits would just be left lying everywhere as people regarded them as food for baboons and monkeys. I never thought that one day baobab would be a source of livelihood for me and my family’.
To enjoy some delicious baobab recipes see the recipe section.