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This Superfruit Is Fighting Malnutrition in Zambian Orphanages

Helen Nianias
Baobab chilli jam

Anyone taking a cursory glance at Instagram recently will know that 2015 is probably the high water mark of tedious health food fanaticism. Pictures of hands clutching juices, posts of unwrapped Nutribullets captioned with an excited sneeze of emojis, and the hashtags, dear God the hashtags. But if mirror-selfies plus #glutenfree #dairyfree #cleanandlean #eatcleantraindirty (thanks for that one, Craig) haven’t convinced you that health food is actually worth the questionable science/self-righteous refusal of undeniably delicious dairy and gluten-filled products, the baobab fruit might just change your mind.

The Zambian fruit is at the heart of The African Chef’s mission, a British company specialising in ethically-produced chutneys and preserves—as well as increasing health and employment prospects for Zambians.

Malcolm Riley, who founded the company with just £500, explains that aside from the fruit’s incredible nutritional benefits (it is thought to contain ten times more antioxidants than oranges and six times more vitamin C), it has also helped boost the local women’s cooperative.

Mthanjara Women’s Co-operative produces the baobab jam, which is both given to an orphanage housing children living with HIV, and snapped up by wealthy, faddish consumers in the West. As such, The African Chef is run from the twin bases of Zambia and Devon.

Riley himself is from Zambia and, to cut a long story short, suffered an HIV scare that had him jumping on a train and away from his family. Afraid of telling them that he may have contracted the AIDS virus, he left the country.

“I didn’t want my family to know, I stayed in a box room with a friend,” Riley says. “And then I moved to London and ended up living in a council flat with my aunt. I did go for a test, realised I was negative, and ventured on a journey of exploration through the whole organic and health food movement, and came full circle to the Mthanjara Women’s Cooperative in Zambia.” He now gets to work near his extended family in the African country.

Ten years ago, Riley found that the women’s cooperative, who were processing the baobab fruit, were something of an anomaly. “They were the only people actually processing baobab in that form,” he explains, “so it was baobab being used to its full potential—it’s the most abundant crop in the area, so it had a tremendous impact on the environment, and economically as well—it finally gave poor rural communities an opportunity to harvest it.”

The image of a baobab fruit, which is fleshy and appealingly lush on the outside, defies expectation when cut up. Cracking open the exterior doesn’t reveal juicy orange flesh but powdery white fragments (imagine it as a naturally dry fruit). This means that the process of producing baobab jam—which is made sweet to account for African palates—is very different to a standard fruit jam. Despite this, it still only has 30 percent sugar, compared to a standard jam, which can contain up to 80 percent.

The Zambian women’s cooperative were using the baobab to its full potential—it’s the most abundant crop in the area, so it had a tremendous impact on the environment, and economically as well—it finally gave poor rural communities an opportunity to harvest it.

The manufacturing process sees the dry baobab fruit ground up so it’s almost like flour. Observing and adapting this process for a larger market turned Riley into a kind of baobab pioneer.

“What we can buy containing baobab and the number of recipes we can use it in is slowly growing, so you can imagine 10 years ago I was more or less at the forefront of developing baobab,” he says. “The women’s cooperative showed me how they were making the jam. They were processing baobab, they were also using other small tree fruits around the area.”

So how does the HIV orphanage fit into this? Riley wanted to make his own ethical and sustainable product that would help rural communities in Africa. Whatever went unsold was donated to the orphanage.

“At the time I didn’t realise fully,” he says “I knew the baobab was quite nutritionally good for you, but we didn’t have the full spectrum and the whole nutritional value of what is actually a superfood.”

The benefits, Riley says, are phenomenal: “Rich in vitamin C, iron, magnesium, potassium, suitable for vegans and vegetarians: it’s a fantastic replacement for iron supplements.” On top of this, the naturally occurring pectin in the baobab eliminates the need for gelatin or artificial setting agents.

Needless to say, The African Chef piqued the interest of trend-hungry Britons, desperate to leap on the latest health bandwagon. This time though, it has real benefits for the producers. The company’s baobab jam is now sold at Selfridges and costs just under a fiver a jar. Riley won’t be drawn on the faddish nature of some of his customers, but instead says “it has been mentioned for basically having a potential for helping people in rural Africa. Both nutritionally and where they can harvest it sustainably, and in the developed world people can get the health benefits of it.”

Marketing campaigns aside, what’s the nutritional effect of baobab on seriously ill kids? Riley says that, across Africa, HIV positive children in different areas are bolstered with locally available products.

“They [the health benefits] are instantaneous,” he says. “[The children] are able, at a very young age, to have the basic building blocks of protein and amino acids which is so key in development.”

Karen Percy, HIV specialist dietician at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital says that the vitamins provided in baobab jam are pivotal for a child growing up with HIV.

“Unfortunately the HIV epidemic in Africa often occurs where malnutrition is already endemic, leaving young people more vulnerable to both HIV infection and also the progression of HIV,” she explains. “Energy requirements for adolescents with HIV can be increased by 10 to 30 percent depending on the stage of their HIV.”

The fact that the children in Zambia are being fed something both iron-rich and sweet can make all the difference. It’s this combination of sweetness and practicality that lifts Riley’s entreprise above the saccharine level of a start-up-done-good story.

Published: March 27, 2015. BY Helen Nianias
Copyright © 2015 Vice Food LLC

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