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African Fruits Hold Great Potential to Combat Poverty

11 February 2008


Baobab tree: " A Caliban of a tree, a grizzled old goblin with a girth of a giant, the hide of a rhinoceros, twiggy fingers clutching at empty air, and the disposition of a guardian angel..."  

 The baobab has great untapped potential - it can
be dried into a nutritious powder for long-term storage

Africa's own fruits are a largely untapped resource that could combat malnutrition and boost environmental stability and rural development in Africa, says a new report from America's National Research Council.  African science institutes, policymakers, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals could all use modern horticultural knowledge and scientific research to bring these "lost crops" - such as baobab, marula, and butterfruit - to their full potential, said the panel that issued the report. 

Exotic Legacy

Today, tropical fruit production in Africa is dominated by species introduced from Asia and the Americas, such as bananas, pineapples, and papayas.  Because these and other crops arrived on the continent centuries ago already improved through horticultural selection and breeding, they increasingly displaced the traditional species that had fed Africans for thousands of years.  The imported species also received the support of colonial powers who wanted familiar crops that were profitable to grow, and indigenous fruits continued their downward spiral of dwindling cultivation and knowledge.

Native Riches

With renewed scientific and institutional support, however, Africa's native fruits could make a much greater contribution to nutrition and economic development, the new report says.  Fruit trees and shrubs also offer long-term benefits by improving the stability of the environment.

The report highlights 24 fruits that hold special promise; some are already being cultivated in parts of Africa, while others are harvested from the wild.  Examples are:

  • Aizen.  Giving more people access to this wild fruit -- which grows in extreme climates with few other food resources -- could reduce malnutrition and mortality, the report says.  The fruits are a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium, and some minerals, while the seeds are high in protein and zinc.  This large, resilient Saharan shrub shows promise as a way to protect erodible slopes, stabilize dunes, and create windbreaks.
  • Balanites.  This small desert tree tolerates heat and aridity so well it thrives deep in the Sahara.  It produces heavy yields of datelike fruits, as well as kernels that are one-half oil and one-third protein -- similar to the makeup of soybeans and sesame seeds.  These fruits and kernels already feed families in arid zones where few other food crops exist, but their full potential is scarcely tapped.  The seeds supply a food-grade vegetable oil also used in local cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.  The trees stabilize the natural environment, helping dry areas resist desertification.
  • Baobab.  The fruits of the baobab tree contain a sticky pulp that can be dried into a nutritious powder high in protein, vitamins, and minerals.  The powder is stirred into warm water or milk to create a healthy drink, and also beaten and dried into thin pancakes for use months or even years later, aiding food security.  During the rainy season, villagers often store water in the tree's trunk for later use.  The sale of baobab fruits aids rural commerce, and the trees themselves -- which also yield a popular leafy vegetable -- are almost indestructible.
  • Butterfruit.  This small tree produces fruit that is mainly used as a vegetable.  High in calories and one of the best protein sources in the fruit world, butterfruit is especially promising for reducing child malnutrition.  Even now, these fruits help many communities survive seasonal food shortages in the harshest hot, humid lowlands.  Butterfruit also serves as a cash crop, pouring into cities and rural markets in large quantities.  And the trees, which yield mahoganylike wood, may have potential for plantation forestry.
  • Ebony.  The ebonies of Africa yield some of the world's finest timber and also bear abundant, bright red fruits that are succulent and sweet. These can be dried for use when seasonal foods become scarce. The seeds of some ebonies are also edible, and the leaves are used as animal feed.  Though the trees are known and valued on a local level, hardly anything scientific is known about managing them as food crops.
  • Marula.  This tree is a nutritional powerhouse, producing both fruits high in vitamin C and nuts similar to the macademia, high in protein and minerals.  The fruits are popular in markets and even exported, while the kernels contribute to nutrition and food security.  In addition, oils extracted from the nuts are also exported for high-priced skin care products.  Harvesting the fruits and shelling the nuts provide work for thousands of rural women who have hardly any other source of income.
  • Tamarind.  These fruits are a strong source of B vitamins and calcium, and can be stored for months without refrigeration.  In addition, tamarind's sweet-sour pulp can be preserved in the form of sun-dried cakes -- a simple procedure that perhaps millions throughout Africa could exploit for food security, the report says.  Already widespread, the trees have great promise for restoring damaged lands to health and productivity, and likely for sequestering carbon, since they are treasured and seldom cut down.   

About the Report

The report is the third and final volume in a series that explored the benefits of reviving Africa's indigenous crops.  Previous reports included Volume 2, Vegetables (2006) and Volume 1, Grains (1996). 

The study was sponsored by the Africa Bureau and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance of the U.S. Agency for International Development, with additional support from the Presidents Committee of the National Academies.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

Copies of Lost Crops of Africa: Vol. 3, Fruits are available from the National Academies Press website.

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