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Baobab: A tree of majesty with many magic

The magnificent values of the baobab tree forced plant scientists to assign many aliases to it. One of such is the Tree of Life, connoting…

The magnificent values of the baobab tree forced plant scientists to assign many aliases to it. One of such is the Tree of Life, connoting its importance to the wellbeing of humanity irrespective of colour, race, and even religion. Daily Trust on Sunday reports the awesome virtues and potentials of this splendid tree.

Most Nigerians are only aware of the edible values of the fruits and leaves of the iconic baobab tree. This is why, perhaps, tuwo miyan kuka (local Hausa food and soup) is the most popular delicacy in the menu of most families in the Northern part of Nigeria. Since time immemorial, the leaves of the baobab tree, both fresh and dry, are used in making soup in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.

Kwalba da Nono

Aside from the leaves, the naturally dry and whitish fruits that is cased in a usually two inches curved husk is used in making one of the popular soft drinks in Zaria and other parts of the North. Kwalba da Nono, the name of the drink, is popular especially among youths. These fruits are also used by Fulani women in preserving their cow milk, hence the fruit is code-named kukar Fulani.

The baobab trees in Zaria and other parts of Nigeria are usually long-lived with short and swollen trunks. Their branches are usually wide-spread, large and spread out like canopies. The branches of the tree bear leaves that bloom for a few months. The baobab tree bears fresh leaves usually at the end of the rainy season. The tree, according to findings, has many names like cream of tartar, monkey-bread, lemonade and the upside down tree. The popular belief in Zaria and other parts of Nigeria is that anywhere the tree is found indicates that people had lived there many years back.

The tree has a fair share of superstition attached to it. In most parts of the North, some residents believe that the baobab is home to spirits. This is why there always had to be some spiritual intervention to before any baobab tree could be cut down for domestic or public use.

Enormous potentials of baobab

Recent findings reveal that the baobab tree has a lot of potential that ranges from provision of nutritional food to constituents that can be used in the production of medicine as well as other economic content.

Professor Inuwa Shehu Usman, a plant scientist and the General Manager, Sugarcane Bio-factory, National Sugar Development Council, Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmad Bello University (ABU), Zaria, said baobab is multipurpose food tree that is found in the semi-arid and sub-humid Africa like Nigeria, Niger, Mali, among others.

He said all parts of the tree can be used for one purpose or the other, explaining that most Nigerian communities also use the tree for economic purposes to eke out a living.

“When you talk about food, it is only the soup made from baobab tree that one can take three times in a day, thirty days of the month and twelve months of the year without any side effect,” he said. “This tells you the nutritional value of the tree. It was found that the whitish fruit pulp has high concentration of vitamin. It also contains minerals like calcium, magnesium and iron.

“Again, the tree is used as shelter for some people. This is because of its large size with usually big hole in the middle that can allow people to live in. It is also used in making cloth and can provide water for both humans and animals. The big hole at the centre of the tree can store water. The cork-like bark and huge stem are fire resistant and this is why they are used for making rope.

“Aside being used as condiments, the leaves are also used for medicines. In this part of the country, the whitish fruit is used in making juice. When we were young, we used to see the Fulani using it in their cow milk. It is after the findings of the research that we came to realise its importance that it can preserve the cow milk and add nutritional value to it. When the fruits are removed, the seed is also very rich in protein and fat. Therefore, there is no part of the tree that is useless.”

Findings also revealed that the seed can be eaten fresh. It can also be processed to produce porridge and even sweet, aside oil. The oil is also used for skin protection and nourishment of the hair, Professor Usman explained

He said: “Apart from the foregoing, the tree is a good product for forestation. At a time that the country is fighting desertification, farmers can be encouraged to plant them. It is easier to convince them because of the economic benefits therein, instead of planting trees that have no economic value but just to curtail encroachment of desert. Baobab tree can serve that purpose as well as be of benefit to our people.”

Baobab tree can endure any condition. While it usually likes areas with sufficient rainfall, it can however grow in hot, dry, frost-free woodland areas with low rainfall and well-drained soil, Professor Usman explained.

He advised government at different levels to initiate the establishment of baobab forestation; as such plantations have the capacity to improve the lives of millions in Nigerians.

Baobab as medicine

On the medicinal values of baobab tree, Professor Haruna Kaita of ABU’s Faculty of Pharmacy said the plant has numerous medicinal benefits. According to him, almost all the plant’s morphological parts are being used for various health benefits.

“Baobab is being used as traditional food preparations and in ethno medicine. The ever popular green leaves of the plant have staple culinary applications and their main recipe in folkloric medicine in the treatment of infant abdominal colic. It is so famous in relieving constipation that the Hausas applaud it as:  ‘kuka maganin kukan yaro.’

  Baobab trees in Zaria

“The fresh leaves are used to treat diarrhoea, dysentery, abdominal colic, constipation, fever, as tonic to treat flu, and against parasitic skin infections, rashes, wounds, guinea-worm and ulcers. The leaf decoctions are use against intestinal worms.  Powdered leaves triturated in sheabutter are used as anti-arthritis. Most of these traditional uses have been supported by scientific studies. For example, baobab leaves were found to contain beneficial substances such as flavonoids, polyphenol tannins and plant steroids. These substances are known to possess anti-inflammatory, antimicrobials and antioxidants properties. This may provide the scientific explanation for use of baobab traditionally in treatments of fever, diarrhea, dysentery, and abdominal colics,” he said.

He explained that baobab leaves were found to contain vitamin A and B, which aid in preventing blindness, saying that the leaves contain amino acids which are excellent source of essential micronutrients such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous and manganese.

“These trace micronutrients are essential for brain, heart, muscles, and general body functions. Therefore, regular intake of the baobab leaves replenishes the body  with essential elements, and the

antioxidants prevent many diseases such as autoimmune diseases like cancers, diabetes, aging, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease.

“The fibrous white powder is being used in traditional medicine as an analgesic to treat fever, measles, and against intestinal parasites. The traditional birth attendants use the powder on pregnant and lactating mothers to assist in labour and improve lactation.  The fruit powder is given with millet porridge to children with rickets.  The baobab seeds are powdered and applied to skin cuts and wounds to improve healing.

Baobab fruit powder contains carbohydrates, fibres, minerals, and has high content of vitamin C.  It has much higher vitamin C than oranges. This vitamin C is use in the treatment and prevention of scurvy,” Professor Kaita said.

He said a decoction of the stem bark of baobab is being used traditionally to treat malaria, measles and flu. The bark, according to him, can also be chewed to treat mouth and mumps infections.

He said: “The bark is also reported to be useful in urinary infections and used as body wash to disinfect skin.  Water decoction of the bark is traditionally used as cardiotonic. Baobab stem bark contains astringent compounds like tannins, tragacanth-gum, which has antimicrobial actions and is used to disinfect skin wounds and ulcers, and is often used to bathe children with skin infections.”

Baobab demand

Professor Kaita however regrets the shortage of information on baobab, which is leading to its under utilization.

“Recognising the numerous benefits of baobab plant and its non-availability in many countries create considerable demand for baobab leaves, fruits, and stem fibre from outside Nigeria,” he said. “The leaves and the fruit pods are exported to Europe and Asia, specifically China where they are incorporated in Chinese culinary and traditional remedies. The fruits are exported for their palatable white powder, which is rich in vitamin C. The seeds are pressed to produce oil that is used in the production of cosmetics.

“Although there are no baobab tree plantations, but the plant is so abundant around communities and in the wild in northern Nigeria that the leaves and the fruits go to waste.  Baobab plant has potentials of providing the much needed indigenous raw materials for medicinal, cosmetics and food processing industries. There are numerous laboratory studies on the medicinal potentials of the plant in various Nigerian Pharmaceutical Faculties including the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development. These extensive laboratory studies should be translated into industrial productions and commercialization.

“When we visited Havana and Matanzas in Cuba in 2011, we noticed that some factors responsible for their overall success in healthcare provision are their ability to harness, develop and incorporate more than 50% of their indigenous medicinal plants into therapeutic products. Nigeria has the capacity to harness the potentials of this plant as source of raw materials for many industries.

“For example, Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC) should coordinate advance research for commercial productions of baobab fruit powder as raw material for Pharmacopeia grade vitamin C and the oil from the seeds as cosmetic bases.  This can provide national demand, thereby save foreign earnings.   When the ‘baobab industry’ is fully developed, the semi processed or finished products, the baobab value-chain products, can be exported.”

Baobab trees in Zaria
Baobab trees in Zaria

Professor Kaita said baobab is known to be the only tree whose fruits dried naturally on its branches without dropping and spoiling. The fruits hang on the branches under dry and scorching sun heat for many months and this confers its white powder amazingly unique property that it does not require any spray or freeze drying before being processed in food preparations, he explained.

“Baobab is slow growing plant but widely distributed in rural northern Nigeria.  The plant can live for a thousand years. A typical radioactive carbon dating of a sample of a baobab tree around old ‘Yandoton Daji, Zamfara State indicates that the plant has lived for about 650 years. There are older baobabs around Wanzamai settlements in Zamfara State.

“If you notice baobab vegetation, it is a signature of ancient settlements and archaeological sites known in Hausa as ‘kufai’.  This suggests the plant’s extensive utilization previously. The plant is known to be drought and fire resistant. Baobab tree absorbs water during rainy season and stores it in its huge trunk, enabling it to blossom when the area is dry and arid. The reason the plant is called the tree of life may be because of its remarkable importance for human and animals in arid regions of Africa. This therefore calls for serious attention on the baobab tree by the government and other stakeholders, as it has a lot of potentials for our development,” Professor Kaita concluded.

Baobab, locals and decent living

Hundreds of thousands Nigerians, especially those in local communities, eke out a living from the farming or trading on baobab tree products. It is a great asset for farmers and this is why a farm with baobab tree firmly standing is seen as goldmine.

Aside farmers, many Nigerians are living on the trading of the products of the baobab. Malam Ahmadu Murtala of the Rimin ‘Yan Kuda section of Tudun Wada, Zaria market said he inherited the business of baobab leaf flour (kuka) from his forefathers.

“I am as old as this business, because I grew up to see my father on it. This is my source of living. We go to different parts of Nigeria to get our supply. For me, I usually get my kuka from Yola and Ilorin. Now is the season of this baobab product and the people that patronise us here are mostly Hausa. They use the flour of the leaves for making soup and Danwake (a local Hausa food). People like us love the kuka soup, because it is not only delicious but it is something that you can take many times without being bored,” Murtala said.

Other Nigerians trade on the baobab fruits. One of these Nigerians is Salihu Umar. He said now that the rains have stopped in the Northern part of Nigeria, they even make flour of the whitish fruit.

“People buy these fruits to make ice cream for children. They call this ice cream Kankara in Hausa. I get my supply of the baobab fruits from Kano and Zamfara. My total turnover for a day is usually between N5,000 to N10,000. Fulani women selling cow milk (nono) also patronise this fruit, and perhaps, that is why it also called Kukan Fulani. One 100kg bag of the fruit costs between N5,000 to N7,000 and we give Allah all the praises, as we are taking care of ourselves with this little business.”

A housewife, Madiha Zarun, sighted by this reporter in the Tudun Wada, Zaria market buying kuka (baobab leaf flour) said miyan kuka is her family’s favourite.

“The song of praises of kuka is ‘Yar Hadeja mai yawan sirri (fruit of Hadeja with many secrets). Kuka is good for pregnant women. It gives them many vitamins and minerals. It also eases labour. Kuka soup is the most popular here and this is why you see me in this shop struggling to select the one with the best taste,” Zarun said.

Worshipping of baobab tree

Perhaps, the magnificent nature of the baobab convinced some people that it is worthy of being worshipped. Those that worship it believe that it is a fertility symbol. These people also conduct their marriages under the branches of the tree with the belief that marriages conducted beneath the tree would be prosperous.

Threat of extinction

Human activities and needs are threatening the continuous survival of this important tree. In Zaria, for instance, most of these plants have given way for houses and roads, because of the expansion that the ancient city is witnessing.

The need for firewood has also aggravated the felling down of the baobab in Zaria and its environs. Residents cut down these trees to either sell the woods or use it for domestic cooking.

According to Professor Usman, urgent steps have to be taken to ensure the continuous survival of this humid and steamy tree.

Baobab trees have been part and parcel of life in Zaria, many parts of Nigeria and Africa. History has shown that aside being used as food for the past centuries, Nigerians have used baobab trees as houses, prisons, bus stops, pubs and storage barns, hence its revered status and treatment by many.

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