Baobab: Kenya's ignored economic giant

Selina Maghema, a widowed mother of three from Mwingoni village in Voi, Taita Taveta County, is a hardworking businesswoman. She earns her living from a small enterprise that makes and sells baobab treats.

Though the giant baobab tree dots the arid lowlands of the county, few others have taken advantage of the value in the baobab fruit.

Baobab was licensed for the European food market just six years ago, and the white, floury pulp contained in its yellow-green pods is quickly gaining ‘superfood’ status in this market.

The tree’s pulp has more protein than breast milk, more vitamin C than oranges, more magnesium than spinach, more iron than red meat and more potassium than a banana. It has become a popular additive in reinforced foods.

Further, baobab seeds contain a stable oil that the cosmetic industry is adopting in body lotions and creams. The tree’s leaves have medicinal value and are used to fight infectious diseases. The trunk stores water, which can be harvested by thirsty travellers.

Though sweetened baobab seeds are found in kiosks and along street corners across the country, the potential the whole tree holds for the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and nutrition industries has largely been overlooked.

Making candy

Most beneficiaries of the tree, such as Ms Maghema, utilise it on a micro-scale.

“I learnt how to make mabuyu (baobab sweets) from a neighbour three years ago, and since then I have  produced thousands of sachets, which I sell retail and wholesale, giving me good returns,” said Maghema, who earns about Sh20,000 a month from her trade.

She buys baobab seeds and flour from traders in Kasigau, Mbololo and Sagalla towns of Taita Taveta County, or from Kibwezi in Makueni County.

“I buy a two-kilogramme tin of baobab seeds at Sh50, which is a fairly good price,” she said.

Maghema has converted one of the rooms in her small cottage into a ‘factory’, which is where she stores a 6kg gas stove, sacks of baobab flour and seeds, sugar and the food colourused to prepare baobab sweets.

The process of making the sweets is fairly simple. She puts water in a sufuria, adds sugar and food colour and lets the mixture boil.

She then adds baobab flour and stirs the mixture smooth. The liquid is then removed from the fire and poured into a basin half full of baobab seeds and stirred vigorously until the whitish seeds turn red or green, depending on the food colour used. Once the seeds cool, they are packaged for sale.

“I sell the mabuyu at Sh10 for three sachets to wholesalers.”

Maghana said she is considering supplying the sweets to buyers in Mombasa and Nairobi, where they fetch higher prices.

“A sachet which goes for Sh5 in Voi goes for Sh20 in Nairobi.”

But even with a better market for her products, Maghana and other traders like her, are only scratching the surface.

Apart from the famous baobab tree at Salaita in Taveta, which the story goes, was used by a German female war sniper as a hideout during World War I, and which has now been turned into a historical tourism facility, the rest of these wonder trees remain largely unacknowledged.

There are many legends associated with the peculiar shape of the baobab, which is considered the tree of life in some countries in Africa for its multiple purposes. For instance, some say that because of its size, the baobab was intended to lord over smaller plants, but it became arrogant, which the gods did not like. It was, therefore, uprooted and planted upside down.

Financial incentive

“Commercialisation of the baobab could provide rural communities in the arid and semi-arid areas of Taita Taveta County with a financial incentive to protect woodland forests,” said John Mlamba, CEO of Management of Arid Zones Initiatives and Development Options (MAZIDO) International.

Mr Mlamba said the baobab, which is resilient to the harsh climatic conditions of the arid lowlands, could also play a key role in water conservation.

In Malawi, for instance, the baobab has transformed the lives of many local residents by boosting food security and aiding in forest conservation initiatives.

TreeCrops, a company that buys baobab products from smallholder farmers in Malawi, said it has sold more than 50 tonnes of baobab powder in the local market and to a South African distributor in the last year, dramatically improving livelihoods in the southeast African nation.

According to Mlamba, this can be replicated in Taita Taveta’s arid lowlands, where residents mainly rely on maize and beans for an income, but harvests are often disappointing.

“The baobab, once adopted as a commercial crop, can provide an alternative source of income for communities living in the harsh areas of the county who continue to experience crop failure due to lack of rainfall,” he said.

 Export commodity

Large quantities of baobab seeds and flour are also harvested and sold in Coastal towns such as Malindi, Mombasa and Kilifi, as well as Eastern Kenya in Kitui, Mwingi, Kibwezi and Tharaka.

Researchers believe baobab has the potential to become a major regional export commodity, with Southern and Eastern African regions capable of supplying 700,000 metric tonnes of baobab fruit a year.

Key international markets include the European Union, United States, Japan and South Africa. In European shops, the tangy powder is found in chocolates, jams, cereal bars, sauces and alcoholic spirits.

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