South African villagers to tap into 'superfood' baobab trend

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About 1,000 women in the village of Muswodi Dipeni, in the northern province of Limpopo, earn a living by harvesting the furry, hard-shelled baobab fruit pods. The seeds and the chalky powder inside the pods have become a global health craze celebrated for their vitamin-packed properties and now used in everything from flavoured soda, ice cream and chocolate to gin and cosmetics.

"Before, I never knew there was any value in baobab. My family and I would eat the fruit simply because it makes a delicious yoghurt-like porridge that is nutritious and filling," says local Annah Muvhali. "I always use it for my grandchildren when their stomachs are troublesome."

Known locally as "baobab guardians", women like Muvhali also plant and nurture baobab saplings in their gardens and earn an income for each centimetre that the trees grow. Having started in 2006, the grandmother of five has since been able to build a house for her two children and grandchildren from her earnings.

Elisa Phaswana said the baobab guardian programme had alleviated poverty in the community: "It helps the environment and it helps us especially because there is little to no work for us and our children in our village. I get about R320 ($21) per centimetre."

Sarah Venter, an ecologist who runs the Ecoproducts company behind the baobab cultivation, said the scheme rewarded women for their skills and care: "They get paid a certain amount until the tree reaches three metres high and after that it will live for 1,000 years. It has a value chain where everybody benefits, including a rural person picking up something that's already in their environment and getting an income for it. If we are lucky enough as an industry to get to a point where demand exceeds supply, prices will go up and rural producers will get more for what they collect."

Venter said demand for baobab powder has zoomed every year since 2013, with Europe, the United States, and Canada now the biggest consumer markets. Estimates by the African Baobab Alliance show that baobab powder exports grew to 450 tonnes in 2017.

The tree can take up to 200 years to bear fruit, but watering them every day can see that time reduced to 30 years. A tree then produces fruit annually for nearly 200 years.