Building a baobab business

Hamady Sow holds products made from baobab fruit.

Senegalese entrepreneur creates rural jobs in collecting and processing exotic fruit.

When Hamady Sow settled in Bala, a town in eastern Senegal’s Tambacounda region, he noticed that many youths leave the country after finishing their studies. One reason for that exodus was the lack of agriculture and food-processing businesses. Sow decided there is much to be done to create jobs in the region. In 2009, he created a company, Vision Plus Afrique (Vision Plus Africa), while still studying.

Vision Plus Afrique works with 750 people in 10 co-operatives, most of whom are women who live in far-away villages with no employment access. Sow organized groups of women in each village to collect baobab fruit and bring it to his factory. That allows him to create employment and add value to the baobab fruit.

The baobab tree produces fruit that has a variety of culinary uses.

The fruit is also called monkey bread, as monkeys like to eat it. Women collect one million bags of fruit during harvest season in the month of January. They knock the fruit off the trees with sticks, break it, and put it into the bags. Workers at the factory in Bala do a second sorting to cut the fruit. The fibers and nuts are removed from the pulp. Every aspect of the fruit is used. A machine then grinds the white pulp into a fine powder, the nuts are used to make skin moisturizing oil, and the fibers are used for fertilizer.

Baobab powder has a variety of culinary uses. High in vitamins C and A, it is also said to be a good source of iron, magnesium, and antioxidants. It is mixed into sauces, salad dressings, yogurt, jams, and jellies as an added flavoring. The ground pulp can also be stirred into soups and stews, added to porridges or baby food, or sprinkled as a topping over popcorn.

In Senegal, Baobab fruit is used in bouye juice, a drink made from the fruits, or bissap, a drink of Baobab powder combined with dried hibiscus flowers, ginger, sugar, and water. Many baobab trees produce fruit after 25 years, but research has found that some trees can start producing after seven years. Research to be conducted as part of MEDA’s AVENIR project will work at domesticating the baobab tree and having it produce fruit earlier by intercropping it with other crops.

Crushed baobab fruit is poured through a cloth sieve before being bagged.

Sixty percent of the company’s production is exported to Europe, where it is sold in various supermarkets. During the most recent season, it processed 1,000 tons of baobab. Sow has grown the company without any outside financial assistance. But he realized that he could only get so far on his own.

In September 2022, he learned of MEDA’s AVENIR project. Experna, a Senegalese agriculture co-op, introduced him to MEDA.
He submitted a proposal for a matching grant from MEDA and was approved for financial support.“His company was selected because it operates in one of the value chains of the AVENIR project: the baobab fruit,” said Fansou Baji, MEDA’s smart incentives specialist for the AVENIR project. “In addition, it is a company run by a young person.”

New equipment worth over $42,000 USD, subsidized by MEDA, was expected to be operational this summer. Installing the new equipment allows Vision Plus Afrique to accelerate the processing of agricultural products and oils, Baji said. Part of these products will be sold raw. Other parts will be transformed in the production unit before being placed on the market.

MEDA’s support will enable Vision Plus Afrique to work full-time and to supply the supermarkets with pancake mix, baobab syrup, baobab jam, baobab oil, baobab powder, juice, and other products. The partnership with MEDA is the first time anyone has offered to invest in Sow’s firm.

Sow would like to purchase more solar panels to power his machinery because electricity fees are unaffordable. Some of his existing panels are working at 60 percent capacity as he doesn’t have all of the required equipment. Further harnessing solar power would also allow him to diversify his business, producing baby food and mixes with hibiscus and other juices. He sees a market in providing baby food fortified with baobab powder in order to strengthen malnourished or anemic children. Adding that line would also allow him to hire more people from the community.

The company currently employs 35 and receives fruit from 750. By expanding production to other villages, Sow hopes to more than double the number of workers. For the time being, he has no competition in his market niche in this region. Each group of women who work for him also grows organic hibiscus, moringa (a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree), tomatoes, and other vegetables on 200 hectares (just over 424 acres) of farmland. The baobab processing season lasts only three to four months, so the other crops provide continued employment.

The pulp from baobab fruit is used to make powder, oil and other products.

During the rainy season in June, his firm plows the land and uses 459-foot-deep boreholes to access water for these crops. Senegal receives a lot of sun. Solar-powered pumps allow the firm to access water for crops from seven in the morning on.

Sow decided to focus on organic production because of environmental issues, the changing climate, and concerns about diseases caused by some chemicals. A distribution center in Dakar repackages the company’s products for sale. It employs 20 women and five men.

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