Baobab – combatting desertification through sustainable supply chains
Baobab trees are a recognised sight across sub-Saharan Africa, but what about their fruit? The trade of products such as baobab powder and oil is on the rise in global markets. To celebrate FairWild Week and today’s theme ‘shout out to wild harvesters’, we are shining a light on the baobab harvest. It tells the tale of local wild harvesters across the Sahel region and presents opportunities for female empowerment and economic growth in some of the poorest regions of the world.
Baobab trees have been supporting communities in Africa for thousands of years. Traditionally, the tree has been a source of food and medicine, and this has now reached the global market. Baobab powder from dried and ground fruit is rich in Vitamin C and fibres, resulting in its reputation as a superfood. Baobab seed oil can also be found in cosmetic products. Data from the African Baobab Alliance showed that the export of the powder reached 450 tonnes in 2017 and is forecasted to reach as much as 5,000 tonnes by 2025.
The growing global trade of baobab powder and oil is a vital source of income for harvesters, with fair and sustainable harvest creating opportunities for lasting social and conservation impact within harvesting regions."
Caitlin Schindler, TRAFFIC’s Plants Trade Programme Manager.
Who are the harvesters?
A vast majority of baobab harvesters are women. Studies in south-eastern Kenya and northern Venda, South Africa, found that women made up 72% and 98% of the baobab supply chain, respectively. Many of these women have no formal education or other employment. In some areas of South Africa, the sale of fruit has been reported to increase their monthly cash income by 250%. This allows women to pay for education, food, and healthcare for themselves and their dependents.
The recent WildCheck report (co-authored by TRAFFIC, FAO, and the IUCN SSC Medicinal Plant Specialist Group) is a first-of-its-kind assessment of the social and conservation risks of a selection of wild-harvested plant ingredients.
Baobab collection comes with high social risks in the top four producing countries. South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, and Zimbabwe each have documented cases of child labour in similar agricultural practices, which indicates this risk could be present in the baobab harvesting process due to its nature as a family activity. While children accompanying their parents on wild collection trips can be an important part of passing down traditions and cultural knowledge anywhere in the world, it becomes a concern if the contribution of children is substantial, if they are contracted as collectors or if it affects education.
Additional concerns are the safety risks associated with accidents climbing trees while harvesting fruit, or the impact on harvesters if they are required to travel long distances to access the trees.
The WildCheck biological risk rating for baobab harvest is medium. Baobab trees are solitary growers, meaning populations are scattered thinly across the species’ range. They rely on pollinators to reproduce, therefore harvesting the fruits could impact the dispersal and establishment of seedlings. The greatest threat to baobab trees is land-use changes and the increase in trade is a potential concern, although the species’ conservation status has yet to be evaluated on a global scale.
The protection of both mature and immature baobab trees along with sustainable harvesting also benefits a range of other species within the ecosystem. Their primary pollinators are bats (Ephormorphus wahlbergii and Rousettus aegyptiacus), with the flowers also attracting nocturnal moths (Heliothis armigera, Diparopsis castanea and Earias biplaga) and the bluebottle fly (Chrysomyia marginalis). Baobab trees also share their habitats with the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and, in East Africa, with the Bush Baby (Galago crassicaudatus).
Such risks can be mitigated through certification schemes. The FairWild Standard was developed to address the risks associated with the wild harvest of plant ingredients and it integrates social and biological safeguards. FairWild certified baobab products are already on the market, sourced from collector communities in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Zimbabwe by companies ORGIIS and B’Ayoba. Consumers across the world can enjoy products made from the sustainably harvested and fairly traded fruit, from brands including Aduna, Berlin Organics, Chantecaille, Ecoidées and TRÄD.
FairWild’s mission is to ensure a sustainable future for wild plants and the people that rely on them, and Baobab fruit can be a great example of how sustainable harvesting can make a real difference to the lives of rural communities, especially women."
Deborah Vorhies, FairWild CEO
The baobab tree is native to dry regions of sub-Saharan Africa. These areas present a high risk of drought, and the soils typically make the area less agriculturally productive. Communities that live in these areas are especially vulnerable as they are unable to grow crops and therefore have reduced income opportunities. Baobab harvest provides a lifeline to these communities, particularly as the harvest requires no additional technical input beyond the time and efforts of the collectors.
One of the conservation efforts that are already underway is the Great Green Wall project. This is an African-led initiative that aims to grow an 8,000km wall across the width of the continent to restore 1 million km2 of degraded land, combat desertification, increase food and water security, and create employment opportunities. Among the contributors is FairWild certified brand Aduna that has initiated a community land restoration programme that includes planting 12,000 baobab trees. The Great Green Wall will transform the lives of millions living on the frontline of climate change and provide further opportunities for the harvesters in the Sahel region.
Celebrate FairWild Week with us and post #IFoundWild if you find baobab or any of the other Wild Dozen in your products!
The increasing demand for wild plants—as ingredients for food, cosmetics, well-being and medicinal products—poses major ecological and social challenges. The pressure on potentially vulnerable plant species can endanger local ecosystems and the livelihoods of collectors, who often belong to the poorest social groups in the countries of origin.
As a response to these concerns, the FairWild Foundation is working with partners worldwide to improve the conservation, management and sustainable use of wild plants in trade, as well as the livelihoods of rural harvesters involved in wild collection. TRAFFIC has supported the development of the FairWild Standard, and now hosts the organization’s Secretariat under a partnership agreement.
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