The best and simplest thing you can do is buy more baobab products. Every pound you spend on baobab products translates into income in the pockets of rural African baobab suppliers. If you want to be 100% sure the money’s going where it should, look for products that use Fair Wild-certified* baobab.
“If you took just 1% of the money that gets spent every year on supporting annual monoculture in Africa, and instead spent it on developing new products and market opportunities for products from the natural “perennial polyculture” of Africa’s indigenous woodlands and forests, you would create a far more sustainable, climate-resilient and economically viable production system than you could ever achieve through annual monoculture.”
However, the biggest challenge to replacing the existing system of annual cash cropping is, of course, the cash. As a small-scale farmer in Africa, I know if I clear the native vegetation and plant rows of cotton or maize, at the end of the season (and assuming the rains came when they were supposed to), I’ll be able to sell my crop for money. So, the question becomes how do we monetise the existing indigenous vegetation so that farmers could earn at least as much money from sustainably managing what’s already there? And that’s what PhytoTrade was essentially set up to do.
Our vision was to use a very small amount of the Western aid money that normally goes into propping up unsustainable agriculture and instead invest it into developing sustainable income opportunities from indigenous plants. Since then, we’ve learned a huge amount about this approach and what it has the potential to achieve. I believe we’ve shown categorically that, if you took just 1% of the money that gets spent every year on supporting annual monoculture in Africa, and instead spent it on developing new products and market opportunities for products from the natural “perennial polyculture” of Africa’s indigenous woodlands and forests, you would create a far more sustainable, climate-resilient and economically viable production system than you could ever achieve through annual monoculture.
There has been some noise recently about very old baobab trees dying off and attributing this to climate change, and suggesting that maybe baobab trees are being threatened. Actually the very opposite is true. If the effects of climate change in Africa did lead to a die-off of indigenous plants (which I seriously hope doesn’t happen), the baobab trees will quite literally be the last trees standing. Why? Because they are phenomenally well-adapted to dry conditions, and are basically machines designed to extract moisture from very dry soils.
Alongside B’Ayoba and Phytotrade, you run Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe (BIZ) to drive research around existing and potential commercial applications for indigenous plants. What is BIZ currently working on?
BIZ is a consortium of researchers in Zimbabwe (of whom, interestingly, I’m the only male!). They mostly come from a biology or ecology background, and bring a huge amount of experience and knowledge to the table. We have a number of projects on the go at the moment, mostly focused within Zimbabwe, but some of them looking at potential export opportunities.
One of the projects I’m especially excited about is the launch of a new precooked porridge, called Mighty Meal, on the local market. We’re trying to grow demand for an indigenous grain (sorghum) as well as an indigenous bean (the bambara nut). So we’ve taken a popular local product (an instant porridge, normally made with maize and soya), re-engineered it to incorporate these indigenous ingredients, added some baobab for flavour and nutritional fortification, and hey presto! If it takes off, as we hope it will, we’re expecting to see a growth in demand for these indigenous crops, which we hope will incentivise Zimbabwean farmers to replace their maize and soya with more drought-resilient and locally-adapted sorghum and bambara nut.
Considering all of baobab’s incredible properties, some might label it a ‘superfood’–a term that’s been bandied around a lot in recent years. How do you feel about this?
I definitely have mixed feelings about this. It’s true, of course, that there are some foods that have exceptionally high levels of key nutrients (and baobab’s definitely one of them!). But no superfood can be a substitute for a balanced, healthy diet. If consumers think they can offset junk food just by drinking the odd superfood smoothie, they’re destined to be sadly disappointed!
Are there any other indigineous plants from Africa that we should know about?
“Where I feel there needs to be more understanding amongst consumers is in terms of the real power they have to achieve positive outcomes for biodiversity as a result of their consumer decisions.”
Why do you think the beauty industry, in particular, should look to use indigenous plants, like baobab?
Two very important reasons. The first and most obvious is that the beauty industry has to respond to the growing demand from consumers to substitute nasty, synthetic chemicals with natural ingredients.The second is that the beauty industry has a responsibility to use its very considerable purchasing power as a force for good, by deliberately choosing to buy natural ingredients whose purchase contributes positively both to fair trade and environmental sustainability.
I’d like to just delve into this second one a bit deeper. Biodiversity loss is, for me, the next big issue we have to deal with as humans (after climate change). I think people instinctively understand this, and I’m thrilled to see this being manifested in the growing Extinction Rebellion movement. But where I feel there needs to be more understanding amongst consumers is in terms of the real power they have to achieve positive outcomes for biodiversity as a result of their consumer decisions. Actively choosing to buy a product that uses baobab oil genuinely and directly contributes to the conservation of baobab trees. And consumers need to understand this. This is where the beauty industry also needs to do more to educate its consumers.
What does a day-in-the-life of Gus le Breton look like right now?!
I’ll tell you the one thing a day-in-my-life rarely looks like right now, and that’s the day before it! Every day for me is different. I spend part of my time out in the bush looking at plants, talking to traditional plant-users (herbalists, communities, producers) and recording it all on video, part of my time at a desk writing it all up or video editing, part of my time involved in the management of various of my business interests, and then part of my time travelling to meet potential customers in Europe, Africa, Asia and North America.
I also do a fair amount of public speaking to help spread the word. Today, I’m en route from my home in Zimbabwe to a meeting of marula producers in Windhoek, Namibia. I’ll be there for two days, plotting a strategy to help grow the demand for marula oil worldwide. Then I’m visiting a Devil’s Claw harvester up in a San community in the north-east of Namibia to do some filming. Back home for a couple of days and then a long overdue visit to check in with my partners at our craft beer brewery in Victoria Falls in north-west of Zimbabwe. And that’s just the next 10 days!
What are you excited about working on in the next year?
Next year’s going to be a busy one for me, with several initiatives on the go. My biggest goal is to synthesise everything I’ve learned about working with indigenous plants in an agricultural production system and package it as a common sense, nature-based approach to agriculture in Africa.
I’m also trying to pull together a new partnership between players in several different countries aimed at delivering a reliable supply of natural ingredients from Africa that are fully compliant with the Nagoya Protocol regulations on Access and Benefit Sharing.
The signatories to the global biodiversity convention (which is just about everyone but the good old USA!) have agreed that local communities, who are the custodians of indigenous plants and the traditional knowledge associated with them, should benefit from their commercial trade. So now buyers in the cosmetics, food and pharmaceutical industries are actively looking for ingredients where there are benefit-sharing agreements in place. I figure if we can pull together a whole bunch of ingredients that do, we’ll be in a strong position in the market.
I’m also working on a book on useful indigenous plants of Zimbabwe, as well as preparations for a TV documentary series. Those are both going to be fun, for sure! And watch out for the African Plant Hunter’s take on a craft gin using African botanicals never before seen in gin!
Do you have any predictions for the future of the natural ingredients industry?
I think 2020 is going to be all about Nagoya Protocol compliance. A royalty agreement has just been signed with the San for royalties from the sale of Rooibos tea, which is an incredible landmark, and is going to pave the way for many more, similar types of benefit sharing arrangements.
I’d also say that a much bigger focus on prebiotics and the microbiome would be a safe bet for 2020. We’re starting to see probiotics appearing in skincare, and I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’ll continue to focus on eliminating the nasties and replacing them with natural ingredients, as well as circular rather than linear design thinking (reusable packaging being at the heart of that one). And finally, you’re going to start seeing CBD everywhere. There’s no escaping that one!
*Dr Jackson's products are FairWild Certified