Baobab is here to save the world (and your skin): an interview with Gus Le Breton

Photo: David Brazier
The word ‘superfood’ has become more of a marketing term than a credible scientific nomenclature (thanks, goji berries), but if there’s one ingredient that’s truly deserving of the title, it’s baobab.
The baobab tree grows in Africa, Australia and the Middle East. Known as “The Tree Of Life”, it has long been cherished for its healing properties, from root to leaf. At Dr Jackson’s, baobab seed oil is one of the secret ingredients in nearly all of our natural skincare products, and we also use the fruit’s funicles on our Expedition Tea.
However, it’s only now that the rest of the world is beginning to catch up to the enormous value baobab holds, which goes far beyond moisturising your skin. In fact, as we found out from baobab expert and Dr Jackson’s supplier, Gus Le Breton, it has the potential to save entire agricultural systems and economies, particularly in the face of mounting climate threats.
Gus, aka The African Plant Hunter, is a researcher and entrepreneur who has spent over 25 years investigating the traditional uses, natural properties and commercial applications of indigenous African plants. He is the current Board Chair of the African Baobab Alliance, and was the founding CEO of PhytoTrade Africa. He also set up B'Ayoba, a baobab producing business from Zimbabwe, and runs Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe (BIZ), a research organisation that develops and promotes underutilised plant species.
Clearly, if there’s one person to talk to about baobab, it’s Gus! So we sat down with him to learn why baobab is the fruit of the future, and what he’s doing to make sure the whole world knows about it.

Hi Gus! Firstly, how did you discover baobab?
Baobabs have always been part of my life. I grew up on stories of them (books like The Little Prince, The Long Grass Whispers, and Just So Stories) and I saw baobab trees regularly throughout my childhood. When I was eighteen, I drove across Africa with some friends and we were captivated by the baobabs in Senegal and Mali. There was a particularly memorable walk up through the Bandiagara escarpment, where the Dogon people live. 
“Researchers looking at the intestinal microbiome of the Hadza tribe in Tanzania found their guts to be far healthier and more diverse than a typical westerner. And what’s a staple part of their daily diet? Baobab fruit.”
What makes baobab so special?
That’s a hard question to answer, because there are so many incredible features of the baobab! 
Firstly, the high fibre content of baobab fruit makes it a potent prebiotic, stimulating the growth of beneficial bacteria in the intestine. Researchers looking at the intestinal microbiome of the Hadza tribe in Tanzania found their guts to be far healthier and more diverse than a typical westerner. And what’s a staple part of their daily diet? Baobab fruit. Of course!
Secondly, the combination of fibre and polyphenols in baobab fruit make them a fantastically valuable addition to anyone’s diet to help prevent the onset of diabetes and related metabolic diseases. Oh, and as a source of long lasting, slow release energy, you can’t beat baobab fruit. Superb fuel for long distance athletes!



Baobab (Adansonia Digitata)
The seed oil (which I use every day as a shaving oil, as it keeps my face soft and smooth all day long) is phenomenal in terms of its ability to prevent trans-epidermal water loss. It has an amazingly hydrating feel as soon as you put it on your skin, and it just stays there, keeping everything supple and moisturised. 
When did you decide to turn your passion for baobab into a lifelong career?
I first became interested in the commercial potential of baobab as a young researcher in the early 1990s. I had been working on several forest conservation initiatives with rural communities in Zimbabwe, and was struggling to figure out how to make conservation and environmental protection relevant to people who were struggling simply to survive.  
I had an “aha” moment when I realised that the answer was to find ways to make trees and forests economically valuable to rural people. Then, of course, they have very strong incentives to look after them. Once I’d realised that, I started looking at trees that had obvious commercial potential, and baobab jumped out at me, both because of what I (naively!) imagined would be the relatively short time-to-market to get baobab products launched, and because of the keystone role that baobabs play in the ecosystem. 
“The income from the sale of baobab fruit is mostly earned by women (because baobab fruit harvesting is traditionally a woman’s role). When researchers looked at what this income was spent on, they found that children’s education was one of the biggest expenditure categories. That’s really investing for the future!”
How can baobab farming support rural communities in Zimbabwe?
Baobab occurs in Zimbabwe almost exclusively in areas of very low agricultural potential. Because the baobab tree is so adept at drawing moisture from the soil, even in very dry areas, it survives in places where not much else can grow. 
In these areas, which are low-lying, hot, dry and dusty, there can be a lot of poverty–simply because there aren’t many ways to make a living. You can try and cultivate the soil, but nothing much grows and you’re likely to end up disappointed. So giving economic value to baobab trees (by creating a demand for the fruit) creates a new economic opportunity for people living in these areas, and it’s an opportunity of disproportionately high value, just because there’s so little else around. 
On top of this, the income from the sale of baobab fruit is mostly earned by women (because baobab fruit harvesting is traditionally a woman’s role). When researchers looked at what this income was spent on, they found that children’s education was one of the biggest expenditure categories. That’s really investing for the future! 
How are younger generations in Zimbabwe responding to the economic opportunities that baobab production holds?
It’s really encouraging! If you’d asked me that question a decade ago, I would have answered differently. But today I really do see a shift in perceptions, with the younger generation becoming more aware of their cultural heritage. Of course, it’s a constant battle with the forces of social media, but hey, I guess that’s the same everywhere!
And how can we create more demand for the baobab fruit here in the UK?

The best and simplest thing you can do is buy more baobab products. Every pound you spend on baobab products translates into income in the pockets of rural African baobab suppliers. If you want to be 100% sure the money’s going where it should, look for products that use Fair Wild-certified* baobab.
One of your first ventures was Phytotrade, which brought together African small scale producers to set up a profitable, global industry for baobab production. What was the mission behind Phytotrade?
The idea behind PhytoTrade was simple. The West spends hundreds of millions of dollars of aid money annually trying to prop up an agricultural system in Africa that is essentially unsuited to the climate. Every year, thousands of square kilometres of indigenous vegetation are cleared in Africa to make way for the cultivation of crops that don’t come from Africa and that only last for a single growing season. Africa, which is at the epicentre of the current climate crisis, is very prone to drought. Each time the rains fail (which seems to happen more and more regularly), the crops die, leaving bare exposed soil which rapidly erodes away, making it less likely that the next set of crops planted there will survive. And so on, in an ever-tightening spiral of poverty and land degradation.
The way we saw it was this: if we could create a production system that worked with existing indigenous plants, it would be far more ecologically sustainable, and would cost far less than the current system. Indigenous plants naturally occur in this climate, which means they’re already adapted to the local soils and rainfall patterns. They don’t need any help. And, because they are perennial rather than annual, they contribute to improving soil quality, rather than degrading it, as annuals do.

“If you took just 1% of the money that gets spent every year on supporting annual monoculture in Africa, and instead spent it on developing new products and market opportunities for products from the natural “perennial polyculture” of Africa’s indigenous woodlands and forests, you would create a far more sustainable, climate-resilient and economically viable production system than you could ever achieve through annual monoculture.”

However, the biggest challenge to replacing the existing system of annual cash cropping is, of course, the cash. As a small-scale farmer in Africa, I know if I clear the native vegetation and plant rows of cotton or maize, at the end of the season (and assuming the rains came when they were supposed to), I’ll be able to sell my crop for money. So, the question becomes how do we monetise the existing indigenous vegetation so that farmers could earn at least as much money from sustainably managing what’s already there? And that’s what PhytoTrade was essentially set up to do.

Our vision was to use a very small amount of the Western aid money that normally goes into propping up unsustainable agriculture and instead invest it into developing sustainable income opportunities from indigenous plants. Since then, we’ve learned a huge amount about this approach and what it has the potential to achieve. I believe we’ve shown categorically that, if you took just 1% of the money that gets spent every year on supporting annual monoculture in Africa, and instead spent it on developing new products and market opportunities for products from the natural “perennial polyculture” of Africa’s indigenous woodlands and forests, you would create a far more sustainable, climate-resilient and economically viable production system than you could ever achieve through annual monoculture.


Photo: David Brazier
Is climate change a threat to baobab?

There has been some noise recently about very old baobab trees dying off and attributing this to climate change, and suggesting that maybe baobab trees are being threatened. Actually the very opposite is true. If the effects of climate change in Africa did lead to a die-off of indigenous plants (which I seriously hope doesn’t happen), the baobab trees will quite literally be the last trees standing. Why? Because they are phenomenally well-adapted to dry conditions, and are basically machines designed to extract moisture from very dry soils.

Alongside B’Ayoba and Phytotrade, you run Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe (BIZ) to drive research around existing and potential commercial applications for indigenous plants. What is BIZ currently working on?

BIZ is a consortium of researchers in Zimbabwe (of whom, interestingly, I’m the only male!). They mostly come from a biology or ecology background, and bring a huge amount of experience and knowledge to the table. We have a number of projects on the go at the moment, mostly focused within Zimbabwe, but some of them looking at potential export opportunities.

One of the projects I’m especially excited about is the launch of a new precooked porridge, called Mighty Meal, on the local market. We’re trying to grow demand for an indigenous grain (sorghum) as well as an indigenous bean (the bambara nut). So we’ve taken a popular local product (an instant porridge, normally made with maize and soya), re-engineered it to incorporate these indigenous ingredients, added some baobab for flavour and nutritional fortification, and hey presto! If it takes off, as we hope it will, we’re expecting to see a growth in demand for these indigenous crops, which we hope will incentivise Zimbabwean farmers to replace their maize and soya with more drought-resilient and locally-adapted sorghum and bambara nut.

Considering all of baobab’s incredible properties, some might label it a ‘superfood’–a term that’s been bandied around a lot in recent years. How do you feel about this?

I definitely have mixed feelings about this. It’s true, of course, that there are some foods that have exceptionally high levels of key nutrients (and baobab’s definitely one of them!). But no superfood can be a substitute for a balanced, healthy diet. If consumers think they can offset junk food just by drinking the odd superfood smoothie, they’re destined to be sadly disappointed!

Are there any other indigineous plants from Africa that we should know about?
There are many amazing indigenous plants from Africa that have yet to make it on to the world stage, dozens of which have at least as much potential as baobab. One of the ones I’m currently working on is the Resurrection bush (Myrothamnus flabellifolia), an extraordinary shrub that grows in very dry, rocky areas of southern Africa. During the dry season it desiccates completely and appears to be dead, but as soon as it is exposed to any moisture, it comes miraculously straight back to life. Traditionally consumed as a herbal tea, it’s is also used in anti-ageing skincare formulations.

“Where I feel there needs to be more understanding amongst consumers is in terms of the real power they have to achieve positive outcomes for biodiversity as a result of their consumer decisions.”

Why do you think the beauty industry, in particular, should look to use indigenous plants, like baobab?

Two very important reasons. The first and most obvious is that the beauty industry has to respond to the growing demand from consumers to substitute nasty, synthetic chemicals with natural ingredients.The second is that the beauty industry has a responsibility to use its very considerable purchasing power as a force for good, by deliberately choosing to buy natural ingredients whose purchase contributes positively both to fair trade and environmental sustainability.

I’d like to just delve into this second one a bit deeper. Biodiversity loss is, for me, the next big issue we have to deal with as humans (after climate change). I think people instinctively understand this, and I’m thrilled to see this being manifested in the growing Extinction Rebellion movement. But where I feel there needs to be more understanding amongst consumers is in terms of the real power they have to achieve positive outcomes for biodiversity as a result of their consumer decisions. Actively choosing to buy a product that uses baobab oil genuinely and directly contributes to the conservation of baobab trees. And consumers need to understand this. This is where the beauty industry also needs to do more to educate its consumers.

What does a day-in-the-life of Gus le Breton look like right now?!

I’ll tell you the one thing a day-in-my-life rarely looks like right now, and that’s the day before it!  Every day for me is different. I spend part of my time out in the bush looking at plants, talking to traditional plant-users (herbalists, communities, producers) and recording it all on video, part of my time at a desk writing it all up or video editing, part of my time involved in the management of various of my business interests, and then part of my time travelling to meet potential customers in Europe, Africa, Asia and North America.

I also do a fair amount of public speaking to help spread the word. Today, I’m en route from my home in Zimbabwe to a meeting of marula producers in Windhoek, Namibia. I’ll be there for two days, plotting a strategy to help grow the demand for marula oil worldwide. Then I’m visiting a Devil’s Claw harvester up in a San community in the north-east of Namibia to do some filming. Back home for a couple of days and then a long overdue visit to check in with my partners at our craft beer brewery in Victoria Falls in north-west of Zimbabwe. And that’s just the next 10 days!

What are you excited about working on in the next year?

Next year’s going to be a busy one for me, with several initiatives on the go. My biggest goal is to synthesise everything I’ve learned about working with indigenous plants in an agricultural production system and package it as a common sense, nature-based approach to agriculture in Africa.

I’m also trying to pull together a new partnership between players in several different countries aimed at delivering a reliable supply of natural ingredients from Africa that are fully compliant with the Nagoya Protocol regulations on Access and Benefit Sharing.

The signatories to the global biodiversity convention (which is just about everyone but the good old USA!) have agreed that local communities, who are the custodians of indigenous plants and the traditional knowledge associated with them, should benefit from their commercial trade. So now buyers in the cosmetics, food and pharmaceutical industries are actively looking for ingredients where there are benefit-sharing agreements in place. I figure if we can pull together a whole bunch of ingredients that do, we’ll be in a strong position in the market. 

I’m also working on a book on useful indigenous plants of Zimbabwe, as well as preparations for a TV documentary series. Those are both going to be fun, for sure! And watch out for the African Plant Hunter’s take on a craft gin using African botanicals never before seen in gin!

Do you have any predictions for the future of the natural ingredients industry?

I think 2020 is going to be all about Nagoya Protocol compliance. A royalty agreement has just been signed with the San for royalties from the sale of Rooibos tea, which is an incredible landmark, and is going to pave the way for many more, similar types of benefit sharing arrangements.

I’d also say that a much bigger focus on prebiotics and the microbiome would be a safe bet for 2020. We’re starting to see probiotics appearing in skincare, and I think that’s just the tip  of the iceberg. We’ll continue to focus on eliminating the nasties and replacing them with natural ingredients, as well as circular rather than linear design thinking (reusable packaging being at the heart of that one). And finally, you’re going to start seeing CBD everywhere. There’s no escaping that one!

Learn more about Gus Le Breton’s work here

*Dr Jackson's products are FairWild Certified

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