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Oil-Rich Plant Offers African Farmers New Source of Income

There was a time when African farmers planted the same crops season after season. But several non-traditional crops are now taking root on farms across the continent because of growing research, education and the emergence of new markets. One of them, allanblackia, has caught the attention of food manufacturers because of the high-quality oil in its seeds. From the Cameroon capital, Yaounde, Voice of America English to Africa Service reporter Eugene Nforngwa tells us it’s created a new business opportunity for farmers.

The allanblackia tree has grown in the deep jungles of Africa’s rainforests for centuries. In some parts of the continent, local people crushed its seeds to produce edible oil. But no one dreamed of a day when it would become a commodity highly sought after by food manufacturing giants in Europe and America. Yet, that is the reality today.

Driven by science and the prospects of a multimillion dollar market, collecting allanblackia seeds from the wild has not only increased more than tenfold, but thousands of farmers in at least three African countries are now cultivating the giant trees.

Interest in allanblackia developed in the 1980s, when food manufacturers discovered the unique properties of the oil in its seeds. In addition to its excellent nutritional value, allanblackia oil stays solid at room temperature, a property in high demand for the manufacture of margarines and ointments.

The Anglo-Dutch giant Unilever and some international and local NGOs have set up supply chains in Nigeria, Tanzania and Ghana and are looking for ways to mass-produce it.

An estimated 6,000 farmers in the three countries are involved in growing allanblackia or simply collecting the seeds of those growing in the wild.

Research, using vegetative propation techniques, has helped transform allanblackia from a wild bush into a domesticated crop. The plant initially posed many challenges. The seed took 24 months to germinate and from 15-20 years to begin bearing fruit.

But researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) were able to develop propagation techniques that cut down the germination period to just a few weeks and fruition to a few years, making cultivation economically feasible.

Right now, cultivation is still in the early stages. Most of the allanblackia seeds on the market are collected from the jungles and sold to third parties, who then sell the seeds to Unilever.

Dr. Zac Tchoundjeu is a researcher with the center and the head of the ICRAF office in Cameroon.

He says in a few years, there will be enough material for farmers to go into mass production.

In the meantime, Dr. Tchoundjeu says farmers have nothing to lose from going into the allanblackia business, ”Why should we ask farmers to collect allanblackia seed? If farmers are not collecting [them], they are rotting in the forest. But if they collect and sell to selling points developed by Unilever and its partners, this constitutes income generation for the farmers. “

Dr. Tchoundjeu is also counting the conservation benefits.

“One of the strong messages we are sending to farmers is that from their natural stand [the forests], they can exploit indigenous fruit tress, sell these fruit trees and get income from these trees. By doing this, I think farmers will easily accept any forest conservation method we propose to them because “no benefit, no action.”

Agro-forestry is turning forest products – in this case high value wild trees -- into farm crops. Many farmers run small nurseries in which they raise and sell the trees, earning between 10 and 20,000 US dollars a year. The challenge now is to make raising allanblackia sustainable and more beneficial to local farmers. At currents rate of production, experts fear supply will be too small compared to demand in 15 or 20 years unless large fields are cultivated.