Africa's baobab fruit has yet to live up to early promise

Africa's baobab fruit has yet to live up to early promise

The fruit of Africa's baobab tree was much ballyhooed when it debuted on the market several years ago. It is supposed to have it all: an impressive nutritional profile, a pleasing, citrusy taste and few formulation challenges. But the promise remains unfulfilled: Few companies have chose to launch baobab products.

Baobab arrived on the world stage with a fanfare in June 2008. The African tree fruit had finally been granted novel food status by the European Commission, clearing the way for its use in food and beverage products in the European Union. Just over a year later, in September 2009, it went on to receive GRAS approval in the United States.

At that point it seemed that the world of nutrition was baobab's oyster. Experts hailed the potential of a fruit whose powder offered a zesty, citrusy flavor and a dizzyingly impressive nutrition profile, rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, calcium and fiber. Mintel, at the time, identified baobab as the "hot new superfruit" for 2009, set to attain the lofty status already enjoyed by the likes of goji berries, pomegranate, acai and blueberries.

But two years on from obtaining that GRAS approval, and it appears baobab hasn't taken the world by storm quite as expected. Mintel's Global New Products Database (GNPD), which tracks launches of new food and beverage products, recorded that in Europe in 2010, there were only six new products launched containing baobab. So far this year, there have been just four.

In the U.S., meanwhile, Mintel registered no baobab launches in 2010, and just one up to this point in 2011. Even taking account of the possibility that Mintel's GNPD may not pick up every relevant new launch, these figures are at the low end of expectations.

In the UK, Malcolm Riley was one of the first people to ride the wave of optimism that engulfed baobab. He founded his company, Yozuna, in 2007, and when baobab received novel food approval from Europe he launched a jam containing the fruit. But he admits to being disillusioned at how the market for baobab has so far failed to develop as initially hoped.

"It's been very slow, the consumer uptake for baobab," he says. "Apparently it was going to be the biggest superfood in 2009. But it's now 2011, and if I walk down to my local high street and ask someone about baobab they won't be able to pronounce it, and they won't know what it is. The shift will come when you can go onto the high street and people know baobab as well as they currently know goji berries."

Slow burner and not fizzled out?

There are mitigating factors that suggest baobab's star is a slow burner rather than one that's already fizzled out. First, the way the fruit comes to market is unusual in that rather than being cultivated it grows wild all over Africa and is harvested by collectives of poor rural workers. This lends a fair-trade cachet to the ingredient.

But while a supply chain based on wild harvesting is straightforward enough for the local market, once export sales enter the equation things start to get more complicated. Principally, quality control becomes paramount. And this is where PhytoTrade Africa, a trade association that operates in southern Africa, comes in.

Baobab fruit and woman with PhytoTrade AfricaPhytoTrade works with local rural workers' collectives and processors to ensure that any baobab harvested and processed is of sufficient quality to pass muster in the eyes of companies operating in the Western world. It has been working for several years now to bring supply chains in southern Africa up to snuff, running training sessions and workshops to educate pickers and processors in the region about the regulations and standards Western supply chains expect them to meet.

This has been done with the help of an EU-funded project which only concluded in March this year—a sign that the development of a global market for baobab should be seen as a marathon rather than a sprint.

Jörg Grünwald, president of German nutrition consultancy Analyze & Realize, worked with PhytoTrade on the EU-funded supply chain project. He believes that once major food and beverage companies begin to bring baobab products to market in a concerted fashion—something that is yet to happen—the market will blossom. "The big food companies have not taken it on yet," he says. "That's going to come."

Rosie Abdy Collins, baobab product manager at PhytoTrade Africa, insists there is already huge interest among major food companies in baobab, but says: "Big companies are very much risk-averse. Their product development process is very much longer. It can take years. So it's difficult to know where that will lead."

But she remains upbeat, adding, "Up to now there hasn't really been a superfruit that has had a really strong ethical story behind it. It's still on the edge. But there are a lot of people watching it."

Photo: PhytoTrade Africa

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