The Baobab is a source of food and drink.

    From the The Lost Crops of Africa, Vol.II: Vegetablers, Vol. III: Fruits.    The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

    Across much of Africa the baobab (Adansonia digitata) is a common sight.  Wherever it grows people rely on it for food.   Some count this tree’s leaves among their most valued vegetables.   Others consider its fruits the finer food  And all rely on baobab seed for sustenance during famine times.


     Baobab leaf is a staple of many populations in the savanna lands just beneath the Sahara.  In most places between the westernmost tip of Senegal and Lake Chad half a continent to the east this leaf vegetable is among the most common of foods.  Bursting into foliage a little before the rains begin, the trees remain green until a little after the rains have ceased.  In a food class renowned for transitory availability, baobab is thus a leafy vegetable that yields through a very long season.

     Strangely, it is only in West Africa that baobab leaves contribute to diets in a major way.  Eastern and Southern Africa have the tree but seldom consume the leaves.   In the continent’s western half, however, thousands of tons are consumed annually, and baobab greens are a commonplace in the markets as well as the daily meals of millions.

     Baobab leaf is sometimes steamed and eaten as a side-dish like spinach, but most goes straight into soups, stews, sauces, relishes, and condiments that end up being poured over the yam, cassava, maize, millet, sorghum, and so forth to complete the main dish.  A recent survey in Mali found that baobab leaves occurred in 41 percent of these “soups.”  This widely used name does something of an injustice to such concoctions, which are more akin to sauces.  The leaves not only add flavor and nutritive value they thicken the mixture and give the dishes their slightly slippery texture as well as their popularity.  Although baobab leaf is the most common base for these sauces, many other things, including eggplant, okra, jute, tomato, onion, green peppers, and (when available) fish or meat, are also tossed in.  Throughout that vast region this vegetable blend ladled like gravy over starchy staples is the most common cooked food of all.

     This strange tree also provides drink.  At the height of the rainy season, villagers commonly p prize open a hole in the bark and fill the hollow interior with water (usually from a ditch dug at its base).   During the subsequent dry months that tank-in-a-trunk becomes so valuable it is sometimes guarded day and night against parched passersby.  Its fruit pulp is dry when fully ripe.  Often white, but also yellowish or pinkish in color, this so-called monkey bread is a mealy solid resembling something from a cereal.  Indeed, a few hours in the sun easily converts it into a free-flowing flour.

     Following the flush of new leaves early in the rainy season any surplus harvest is put aside to dry.   In desiccated form, the leaves keep well—surprisingly without losing their glutinous polysaccharides and many months later they can be brought out and used to thicken soups just like new.  In cities, where baobabs aren’t available for the picking, the leaves for the evening meal must be purchased.   For many people finding the baobab money becomes a never-ending struggle: Making baobab-leaf sauce can cost the equivalent up to even a dollar a day, a fearsome price in that area, where making more than that for a day’s work is rare. On the other hand, countrywomen derive small but important income from selling the leaves.

     In nutritional power baobab leaf is quite surprising.  According to various reports it contains 11 to 17 percent crude protein and with an amino-acid composition comparing favorably with that considered the ultimate for human nutrition.

     This tree can hold its own against cabbage, spinach, carrots, and the other vegetables that now capture the focus in textbooks, scientific reports, and foreigners’ image of first-class greens.  Seen in overall perspective, baobab is a native resource that provides the continent a tree cover while providing the people food.  And, given some support and attention, it could contribute a lot more to the environments, nutrition, economies, and personal income (particularly women’s income) of many—if not most—African nations.


     The fruit are as unique as the tree itself.  Sometimes reaching the size of melons, they have a furry coating and a tough, gourdlike shell.  Cut one across and you expose an arrangement something like an orange, with angular packets of soft pulp surrounding a cluster of seeds.  There, however, the similarity stops.  Baobab fruit is the very antithesis of an orange: its pulp is dry when fully ripe.  Often white, but also yellowish or pinkish in color, this so-called monkey bread is a mealy solid resembling something from a cereal.  Indeed, a few hours in the sun easily converts it into a free-flowing flour.

     Nutritionally speaking, this strange chalky fruit-powder is like nature’s own fortified food.  The label on a commercially packaged version now sold across Europe, records that 100 g of it provides protein (5 g), carbohydrate (30 g), energy (130 calories), and fiber.   In terms of daily nutritional needs, that same 100 g of dried baobab fruit pulp also supplies 25% provitamin A, 500% vitamin C, 34% thiamine (B1), 17% riboflavin (B2), and 106% vitamin B6.   As to mineral requirements, it provides 33% of the calcium, 26% of the phosphorus, and 50% of the iron needed each day.

     With a gingerbread flavor enlivened by a high but not unpleasant level of acidity, the monkey bread is not for every sweet tooth.   However, it is notably refreshing, a feature especially appreciated in the desiccating climates where the tree occurs.  Most commonly this soluble powder is stirred into warm water or milk to create a beverage.  Each day in West Africa—Senegal, Gambia, and Burkina Faso, for instance—fruits are hauled into cities by the truckload for sale in the central markets and for eventual conversion into this refreshing thirst-quencher.  Despite being a sort of poor-person’s soda, the drink is important in upscale commerce.  One sees it on display, for instance, in supermarkets in countries as far apart as Kenya and Mali.

     Proudly displayed there too are baobab sweets. The fruit’s pulp is often boiled in sugar and brightened with food coloring to form candies.  Children commonly peddle these among themselves; many a budding entrepreneur began her career in commerce selling baobab treats for pocket money. [Here is how the candy was packaged and sold in a small home-store in a Tanzania village.]

     Perhaps the fruit’s most vital use, however, is to provide food security to those who cannot buy their way out of hunger.  For this purpose, the pulp is beaten into thin pancakes, which on exposure to the sun turn into dry disks.  Despite a disconcerting appearance, these leathery circlets have an immense importance because they can be stacked up like dinner plates and stored away for months or even years.  Poor people in a dozen countries rely on this shelf-stable reserve for sustenance during droughts or other disasters when neither gardens nor markets yield enough.   Then, the brown baobab fruit-leather is normally boiled up to create a tasty fruity food whose nutritional balance serves to keep the scales of life and death from tipping beyond hope.