Greater use of indigenous fruits could do much to combat malnutrition, boost food security and contribute to income diversification. In many ACP countries, these treasures remain largely untapped. But some enterprising communities are working to share their fruits with a wider audience.

Betha Monde learned to crack mongongo nuts (Schinziophyton rautanenii) in Zambia's Sesheke District at the age of seven. As well as making cooking oil, she has long experience in turning the mkuya or pulp from the fruit into a tasty porridge. More recently, she has been surprised to discover that she can make a living from the plentiful wild mongongo fruits. When prices for maize plummeted last year, she earned €290 per quarter, enough to cover the household expenses and buy two cows and two goats.

Betha is one of a growing band of suppliers to local company Kalahari Natural Oils, which makes skin and hair products. Mongongo fruits have long been an important food in southern Africa, but only now are these trees providing a source of revenue. Nearly 90% of the harvesters are women.

A host of indigenous fruits in ACP countries have potential as food and cash crops. Though familiar to local communities, many of them are little known outside their region and are frequently overlooked by researchers, policymakers and development organisations. In Africa alone, where most edible native fruits are wild, one assessment lists more than 1,000 different species from 85 botanical families. Some of the fruit-bearing plants are carefully tended, but few have been selected to bring out their best qualities.

Native fruits can play a crucial role in combating food insecurity, especially the so-called hidden hunger caused by micronutrient vitamin and mineral deficiencies. In the Pacific, the Island Food Community of Pohnpei encourages mothers of vitamin A-deficient children to feed them local fruits high in carotenoids, including Karat and Daiwang bananas. Health benefits aside, indigenous fruits have a number of other advantages. They require little or no capital outlay or external input, are perfectly adapted to local conditions, and often have medicinal properties. From Senegal to South Africa, the grey-green fruits of the Kigelia (Kigelia africana) have a long history of consumption and topical application and are now being investigated for development in the natural skincare sector. Tests confirm the fruit has significant anti-inflammatory properties.

Such natural treasures also serve as effective risk buffers against climate change. "It is extremely important to come back to some of the so-called forgotten and underutilised plants, because many of them can withstand droughts or floods much better than commercial crops", said International Centre for Underutilised Crops (ICUC) Director Dr Hannah Jaenicke. In Zambia, the Tonga people of the Gwembe Valley have revived the practice of gathering wild fruits to cushion them against food insecurity caused by persistent drought.

Fruity future

Dozens of tropical fruits are suitable for small-scale processing into jams, conserves, juices and dried fruits. These can be sold at local markets, community shops and supermarkets. Some, such as the baobab and the marula (Sclerocarya birrea), are widely used in their native regions and are beginning to become known further afield. Others are only familiar in local circles, and in some cases their very existence is threatened. Often, fruits are abandoned because of the connotations they have with poverty. Some have been neglected because exotic species have been promoted in their place or because they were difficult to process, though new technologies have produced answers to some of these problems.

In many ACP regions, indigenous fruits are traded at local and regional level. The Ndjanssang tree (Ricinodendron heudelotii) is one of the most economically important indigenous fruit species of West Africa, accounting for a significant proportion of Cameroon border trade in non-timber forest products. In the Caribbean, several companies are marketing tamarind (Tamarindus indica) and carambola (Averrhoa carambola) sauces alongside their range of hot pepper products.

Exotic openings

Growing demand for semi-prepared foods and value-added preparations offers scope for ACP producers. Export potential is also fuelled by a boom in ethnic and exotic foods. A trend for 'superfruits' - a term coined to describe any fruit with a high antioxidant content or other beneficial nutrients - is fast catching on among 'foodie' consumers in Europe, Japan and the USA, keen for novel tastes with which to titillate their tired palates. French flavours firm Aromatech has developed a range of superfruit flavours that include açaï (Euterpe oleracea), acerola, goji berry and mangosteen. Global company Treatt launched a tamarind flavour earlier this year.

But obstacles strew the paths of ACP producers seeking to tap lucrative export markets. "Regulatory hurdles can prevent African natural products from realising their full economic potential and optimum returns to rural producers", said Lucy Welford of PhytoTrade Africa, the southern African Natural Products Trade Association (see Box). In spite of the difficulties, there are some commercial success stories. In the forests of Tambacounda, Senegal, nine villages are harvesting baobab with support from local NGO Wula Nafaa. The fruits are sold at 25% above the local price to Italy-based firm Baobab Fruit Company Senegal for markets in Europe and the USA. Safou (Dacryodes edulis), common in Central and West Africa where it provides a staple food for 3-4 months of the year, is now exported from Cameroon to France and Belgium, with an annual 105 t leaving the country.

Commercial partnerships developed with global companies have created opportunities for breaking into European markets for natural products. In northern Namibia, the 4,800 members of the Eudafano Women's Cooperative (EWC) have formed links with The Body Shop to sell marula products. Members harvest fruit from wild marula trees and deliver kernels and seeds to EWC's own processing factory. Marula oil is used in cosmetics and skincare products while juice is produced for the local market. The jelly melon or African horned cucumber (Cucumis metuliferus) is gaining ground in international markets. Kenya is now exporting it to Europe, alongside established favourites such as mangoes and pineapples. The mobola plum (Parinari curatellifolia), an evergreen tree common in parts of tropical Africa, is currently being investigated for its potential in the hair care sector. The seeds are a rich source of oil which forms a protective film over hair fibre.

Filling the knowledge gaps

Since most indigenous fruit trees in the developing world have never been cultivated on-farm, knowledge is lacking about production, propagation and processing methods. Some efforts are now being made to fill those gaps. Together with local and regional partners, researchers at ICUC are studying underutilised fruits in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. Using information tools in local languages and training courses for farmers and extension officers, the team is helping to spread the word about the benefits.

In the Caribbean, support from Taiwan is helping producers in St Kitts and Nevis to develop local fruits and establish an agro-processing facility for value-added products. The Franco-Ethiopian cooperation project Home Gardens has launched a system of Geographical Indications (GI), with a view to patenting home-grown products and preserving biodiversity. Native fruits earmarked for GI development include the Asosa mango, a cactus from Tigray and citrus from the North Shewa Mountains. In Papua New Guinea, scientists at the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) are working to clone and propagate short, early-bearing trees from the indigenous taun or ton (Pometia pinnata). NARI agronomist Mathew Poienou said the fruit had the potential to become a lucrative export earner if domesticated and commercialised.

A CTA-supported international symposium on underutilised plant species (UUPS) held in Tanzania in March 2008 outlined initiatives to study, conserve and utilise neglected fruit and vegetable plants. Solid scientific research should underpin the introduction of UUPS products onto the market so as to ensure sustainability, participants agreed. It is essential to develop species without undermining agrobiodiversity and proper harvesting is paramount. Experts stress the importance of building on local knowledge. "There is also considerable scope for applying modern methods such as tissue culture and biotechnology to address problems such as unavailability of planting material of desirable cultivars", said Dr Jaenicke.

For marketing, there is a need to start building a strong local value chain before moving on to outlets further afield. A key challenge is to avert the risk of successful ventures being taken over by larger companies and bypassing the poor. And while control systems and quality standards are essential for export markets, they are important for those closer to home too - local consumers also have the right to receive top quality products.

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