The gigantic trees dwarf other plants on farms along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway as one approaches Kibwezi town in Makueni County.
Dangling from the African baobab trees (Adansonia digitata) are giant fruits, whose white pulp is normally a source of food for residents when drought strikes
The baobab tree, which in Kiswahili is popularly known as mbuyu, dots the landscape of the semi-arid region. The trees have spawned thriving agribusinesses in the area and beyond.
Ann Muuo is one of the residents who sell baobab fruits. The businesswoman harvests and buys baobab pulp from residents in Masongaleni, Makueni, which she sells to traders who flock the region.
Seeds of Gold finds her buying the produce at Kyumani market. “This is the baobab fruit harvesting season. I buy from residents at Sh100 per sack and add to what I harvest from my six trees then sell to a businessman in Nairobi,” she offers, adding that in a good season, she makes at least Sh100,000.
Ann further adds food colour to baobab seeds to make mabuyu, a popular candy sold in urban areas at Sh10 for a small pack. Kibwezi is one of the three regions in the country where baobabs are found, the others being at the Coast and in Mutomo, Kitui County.
Initially, Makueni residents would harvest the fruits and eat them or leave them to rot on the trees. But this was before traders from Nairobi and other towns started to flock the region in search of the fruits.
Nutritionists classify baobab as a ‘super food’ because its fruits are nutrient-dense. The dry pulp, known as monkey bread, contains high amounts of Vitamin C, calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron, according to the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).
The institution, together with others like the Kenya Forestry Research Institute and National Museum of Kenya, note that promoting the indigenous tree can boost incomes in rural areas.
The May-October baobab harvest season in Kitui and Makueni counties is marked with frenzied activities that include scaling the giant trees by villagers keen to harvest the fruits for sale.
Those who cannot scale their trees hire daring youths at a small fee. Conflicts over stolen baobab fruits are common in the regions, according to elders.
“We lease trees from our neighbours. Hiring a baobab tree costs from Sh200 to Sh500 depending on its estimated productivity. I make at least Sh10,000 a month from harvesting the fruits,” says Peter Kiminza, a boda boda operator based at Manyanga market in Kibwezi.
Kelvin Kibuka, an agro-entrepreneur, has set up a mini-factory known as Vokenel Enterprise in Kibwezi town for processing baobab powder and oil. He also runs a baobab depot, buying the produce from locals.
Two of his products, Ubuyu Baobab Oil and Ubuyu Natural Baobab Fruit Powder, are stocked in high-end pharmacies, food stores and supermarkets in Nairobi, Eldoret, Kiambu, Nyahururu and Kikuyu towns. A 100g of Ubuyu powder goes for Sh400 and 50ml of the oil at Sh 500.
To process baobab seeds, one starts with breaking open a dried fruit, and then scoops out the monkey bread (pulp), and separates it from the fibres, which hold the seeds together and onto the fruit.
“To make mabuyu candies, the seeds are first processed before they are coated in a mixture of sugar and food colour to enhance their appeal. In addition to the food colour, we add assorted flavours such as vanilla to further enhance their value,” says Anisa Atieno Odero, who has been selling the multicoloured mabuyu candies in Nairobi for the past 17 years.
She buys the fruits from Kibwezi, Mombasa and sometimes Tanzania, processes them at her home, and sells them near Jamia Mosque in Nairobi’s central business district.
The flavours assist in neutralising the sourness in baobab seeds, according to Frank Munyao, who prepares and sells mabuyu at Marikiti market in Mombasa.
The product’s colours range from red, green to purple. Mabuyus are sold in sachets whose prices range from Sh10 to Sh120.
The candies are perhaps the most widely known baobab product. However, there are other products that have been used by the Kamba community for eons.
The baobab powder is mixed with water to yield a yoghurt-like sauce known locally as kikoloo.
The sauce is eaten with ugali by rural communities when they have no meat, vegetables or pulses. The sour concoction is also added to porridge to give it a distinct flavour.
The powder is refined into an expensive product used for spicing smoothies and juices in high-end hotels in the country and abroad.
The seeds are also squeezed to yield oil which is used to make expensive cosmetics. The government, through Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (Kirdi), works with traders to squeeze oil from baobab seeds.
“The oil is used to moisturise skin and soften the hair or it is incorporated in other cosmetic products,” Gladys Mugo, the head of Natural Products Development Centre at Kirdi tells Seeds of Gold.
The demand for baobab fruit products in the UK increased by more than 1,600 times last year. The UK remains a huge market for baobab products from the African continent.
Although the country currently imports assorted baobab products from Malawi, Kenyan traders are upbeat that they will soon get into the market.
“We stock enough baobab fruits to last us until the next harvest season to sustain the business. The main challenge is the high cost of production,” says Kibuka.
However, as growers and traders seek to explore the fruit to make more money, several challenges face the industry.
Baobab seedlings seldom grow into mature trees, something that has given scientists a headache. The indigenous plant is said to take hundreds or even thousands of years to mature.
This puts the existing population of baobabs at the danger of extinction.
Baobabs thrive well in harsh weather conditions. They shed leaves to survive dry spells. Their deep tap roots help them access water deep in the ground while thick skin is used for insulating them against adverse weather conditions and bush fires.
Scientists at ICRAF have been experimenting with ways of protecting the tree from extinction and come up with new varieties.
“We have developed methods of propagating baobab by grafting to come up with trees that grow faster and provide more fruits. Normally, a baobab developed from seed may fruit after 10 years but grafted trees start producing fruits even in five years,” says Dr Alice Muchugi, the head of plant genetics at ICRAF says, adding that the institution is currently working on propagating baobabs in places where they currently thrive.
Currently, baobab is threatened by being cut down for farming and by wildlife in the parks.
“You rarely see young trees coming up. There is a lot of harvesting of baobabs for export but mostly communities do not know the value in international markets,” she adds.
Additional reporting by Wachira Mwangi.
Baobab parts are all useful
It has tender roots, tubers, twigs, fruit, seeds, leaves and flowers, all of which are edible and are common ingredients in many food dishes.
Ropes, basket nets, snares and fishing lines are made from the fibre found in the inner bark of the tree.
The roots and green bark are used to make dyes. The hard fruit shells are used as pots for beverages and food.
The wood is a poor source of fuel; the fruit shells are used instead.