Africa has a wealth of indigenous plant species, but has not been as successful as India and China at commercializing them as nutraceuticals, one South African firm trying to spread the word about the continent’s natural ingredients tells Elaine Watson
So why isn’t Africa cashing in? Lots of reasons, says Adolf Joubert, chief executive of Afrinatural , which supplies a wide range of raw materials from baobab to marula.
“The South African Medical Research Council has identified 4,000 plant species out of a database of 24,000 plants as having ‘economical potential’.
“This is probably more than any other part of the world can offer. But people are still looking to India and China to meet their needs, even in Africa itself. We must get companies to buy the argument that Africa, just like China, India and Europe, has an enormous wealth of solutions.”
Establishing Africa as a significant source of plant materials
He adds: “We have some mind-blowing research, and we like spending millions on production - either cultivation projects or manufacturing facilities - but none on creating demand, on marketing, on establishing Africa as a significant source of plant materials.
“So we are oversupplied with manufactured and cultivated product that cannot be sold. When projects fail they disappear off the glossy departmental reports. And so we carry on missing the opportunities.
“In my opinion, part of the problem is that there is still a post-colonial mindset of waiting for some help, to be discovered, instead of coming out aggressively and having confidence in ourselves.”
He added: “However, Kenya has flickerings of stepping out of this mindset – they have done a lot to promote Pyrethrum, a natural insecticide – while Tanzania and Rwanda are also proving themselves in the New African economy.
“One of the problems South Africa has is that it almost has too many plants so it has been hard to know where to focus all the energy.”
Afrinatural, which has a US office in Texas, has strong links with growers all over Africa, says Joubert. “If you want to promote South Africa, you need to present Africa.”
But how best to do it? Aggressively promoting a handful of higher profile African ingredients to international markets such as nutrient powerhouse baobab or marula is one approach, he says.
However, a partnership approach whereby buyers looking to meet a gap in a given market or provide a fresh slant on an established market work with African suppliers to find ingredients that fit the bill would be even more effective, he adds.
“I will be delighted if baobab really makes it on the international stage, because it might make people start to look at what else Africa has to offer. But there are lots of other ingredients out there as well.
“If supplement firms say we're looking for something to address this health condition or that application, we can come back and suggest ingredients that specifically meets their needs and give them a real point of difference.”
This would enable them to tap into an “enormous wealth of plant species with ages of knowledge attached to them, rather than merely following the masses”, he claims.
Which ingredients have the most potential?
But what ingredients are worth a closer look? It all depends what you’re looking for, says Joubert, but some worth watching include:
Marula- Indigenous to southern Africa, the fruit from the marula tree contains a stone containing edible seeds that can be crushed to release oil with a similar fatty acid composition to olive oil, but with greater stability. Used for centuries as a skincare treatment, it can also be used as a culinary oil or in dietary supplements.
Baobab - Baobab fruit pulp powder is claimed to contain more fiber, vitamin C, iron, potassium and magnesium than any other fruit powder available on the market, weight for weight. It is also one of the few plant sources of calcium and contains more than 50% fiber.
Rooibos & Honeybush Teas - Sold as tea, but also as ingredients in yogurts and beverages.
Rose Hip Tea & Oil – A good source of vitamin C.
Pelargonium sidoides (Umckaloabo or South African Geranium) - Good for bronchitis, sore throats and the common cold.
Sceletium tortuosum – A succulent herb common to South African marketed as a natural stress reliever and appetite suppressant.
Irvingia extract (African Mango) - For weight management. Recently singled out by SPINS as an ingredient to watch in 2012.“This ingredient is set apart from many other natural weight loss products in that scientific research supports the claims regarding its use. African Mango has been shown to be effective in reducing body weight in three separate clinical studies. The weight loss category is booming at the moment and African Mango is its rising star.”
Thaumatin - A natural sweetener and flavor modifier from the katemfe fruit of west Africa that is heat stable, water soluble and stable under acidic conditions.
Moringa Oleifera – A superfood. Immature Moringa oleifera pods are rich in amino acids, vitamins, minerals, co-enzymes, and antioxidants. Moringa leaves are also protein-dense and rich in vitamin A, calcium and vitamin C.
Sutherlandia frutescens – For immune health and glucose control. “One of the most researched plants in South Africa,” says Joubert. “This has a lot of potential.”
Hypoxis hermerocallidea (African Potato)– For immune health, says Joubert: “Our previous Ministers of Health have unfortunately created a lot of negative publicity on this one, but the core argument stands.”
Hoodia: ‘Still hanging around in the wings’
Meanwhile, hunger-busting succulent hoodia – perhaps Africa’s most famous – but controversial – nutraceutical export, is “still hanging around the wings for the bold that want to re-introduce it”, claims Joubert.
“The problem was not so much about efficacy, but that the black market was not controlled, so we got to a stage where 85% of the hoodia on the market was not hoodia at all.”