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Zimbabwe commercialises its indigenous crops

Trade and Marketing

Indigenous and underutilised plant species in Zimbabwe, such as the baobab tree, are being harvested and processed into marketable food and cosmetic products

© B'Ayoba

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Baobab bio-innovation

A specialised research organisation in Zimbabwe is identifying and developing locally available and underutilised plant species into marketable products.

Over 4,000 small-scale farmers living in arid areas of Zimbabwe are earning incomes from selling various underutilised indigenous plants. Through the harvesting, processing and packing of 15 edible and non-edible plant species, local farmers – mostly women – are finding employment opportunities with non-profit research hub, Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe (BIZ). The organisation buys the wild-harvested crops from the farmers to process into various food and cosmetic products, such as conserves and moisturising oils, for sale at local and international markets.

Indigenous and underutilised plant species in Zimbabwe, such as the baobab tree, are being harvested and processed into marketable food and cosmetic products

Indigenous and underutilised plant species in Zimbabwe, such as the baobab tree, are being harvested and processed into marketable food and cosmetic products

© B'Ayoba

Zimbabwe has many adaptable and drought-resistant plant species that require minimal or no agri-inputs at all and have significant commercial potential. Baobab, for instance, is a hardy tree that grows in very dry areas of the country and is used in BIZ’s flagship products, such as baobab powder, marmalade and hair oil. Although, traditionally, baobab fruits have been eaten, the tree was never previously considered a cash crop by local farmers, but is now contributing to livelihood security. “In 2012, 1 year after I started harvesting baobab, I managed to buy a water pump, which I use in my garden to water maize, beans and other vegetables to sell to the community. The market gardening earns me an extra income of RTGS$300 (€50) per month,” says Marcia Matsika from Manicaland province.

“At the moment, we are processing between 12 and 15 different species. We started with 40 plants which we whittled down so that farmers can harvest and sell on a predictable and regular basis, but not necessarily cultivate them, as most are available as wild plants,” says Gus Le Breton, BIZ CEO. “Through our separate company, B’Ayoba, we have trained, contracted and organically certified 4,500 baobab producers… and, if you consider that an average household in Zimbabwe is five people, that is 20,000 people, and this is just one plant,” he adds. Other indigenous plants processed at BIZ include, Bambara nut, marula tree, mongongo nut or mankelli tree, the resurrection plant, rosella, sausage tree or kigelia, the wild melon tree and ximenia.

The harvesters earn around €90 each season from the sale of the baobab fruit, according to Le Breton: “It is not a lot of money, but it is still the biggest source of cash in poor arid areas, where there are not many economic opportunities. Out of the 4,000 harvesters, 150 that we directly employ to work at our processing centres earn between US$500 (€445) and US$1000 (€890) [per season], and that’s good money,” he says.

BIZ sells most of its products to American and European markets, with baobab powder selling for around €10 per kg and moisturising seed oils for around €25 per kg, but local sales have been slow because of a negative misconception of indigenous resources. “The biggest obstacle to developing this industry locally is the lack of market, but internationally the market is going to grow,” says Le Breton. “We are growing local awareness based on the demand from the diaspora and export market.”

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