The African Tree That Could Help Replace Palm Oil
For millennia, wild fruits have been an important source of nutrients for people across Africa. Deforestation, however, threatens the future of indigenous trees—prompting some scientists to collaborate with farmers, who they see as the key to preserving a disappearing resource.
Domesticating wild trees to improve yields has proven a challenge. Farmers also need buyers for a crop before they plant it. The market value of many of the region’s indigenous fruits, though, pales in comparison with popular crops such as mangoes and apples. Hope for a solution to both of those hurdles has come from an unlikely place—global food giant Unilever, whose executives stumbled across the oil-rich seeds of the tropical Allanblackia tree.
For Unilever, part of the beauty of Allanblackia oil is its structural properties. It melts and solidifies at temperatures just right for making margarine—similar, in some ways, to palm oil but easier to process. The company started working with local researchers in the 1990s to domesticate the tree and contracted with farmers to grow it on their land. It seemed a win-win-win: rural farmers would benefit financially; researchers would have funds to work on a crop whose future in the wild remained uncertain; and an international conglomerate would obtain a unique new product while also potentially earning public relations points from environmentalists.
Ultimately—and perhaps most important—the partnership could become a model for preserving other neglected indigenous crops across Africa and perhaps the globe. What happened instead was a decade-long lesson in the challenges of developing indigenous crops commercially.
The Allanblackia tree proved harder to domesticate than anyone had predicted. “It turns out this particular species seems to be, by far, the most difficult one we’ve tried in terms of vegetative propagation,” said Roger Leakey, former director of research at the Kenya-based agricultural research organization ICRAF, who helped spearhead the organization’s efforts to domesticate indigenous fruit trees. That’s because the cuttings are much slower to root than other trees. Once they do, they only produce a single root, which makes the trees unstable and likely to fall over as they grow taller.
Despite the slow progress, the partnership with Unilever can serve as a model for projects in Africa or elsewhere, according to Leakey. This form of agriculture could not only benefit small-scale farmers but help preserve a future for indigenous trees.
“We’ve learned so much from this on the challenges for some of the species that are high-value…but which will need heavy investment, and we go into it right from the beginning with our eyes open,” said Ramni Jamnadass, ICRAF research project leader focused on indigenous trees and their nutrient-dense fruit. “They’re not all going to be easy—but that doesn’t make them any less valuable.”
Jamnadass’ team at ICRAF is working with farmers to cultivate a wealth of indigenous crops. Africa has hundreds of them, and because they tend to be both richer in nutrients and better adapted to local climates, they’re easier to grow and can better withstand hard conditions like drought than exotic crops.
The Allanblackia project is significant because a multinational food company like Unilever can single-handedly transform the market value of a crop. Leakey and other proponents of sustainable agriculture are cautiously optimistic that Unilever is pioneering a strategy to grow for more sustainable crops than, say, palm oil.
Palm oil, an ingredient in a host of food and cosmetics products, is the poster child for agriculture gone wrong. Insatiable demand for palm oil has driven such rapid clearance of forests and peat lands in Indonesia that the country is a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, threatening already-endangered orangutans and other wildlife. Unilever was connected in the past to unsustainable palm oil production practices, and while criticisms remain, it has in recent years been pledging to green its palm oil supply chain. (The company has also attracted praise for its ambition to reduce its corporate environmental footprint. During the recent Paris climate conference, the company’s leadership pledged to increase its use of clean energy and to fight deforestation. Unilever’s sustainability targets include halving the greenhouse gas impacts of its products across their lifecycle, the water associated with their consumer use, and the waste associated with their disposal, all by 2020.)
“What I think is perhaps most important is the mere fact that Unilever started thinking in a very different way from most multinational companies,” said Leakey. “What they recognized was there are commercial opportunities to develop new crops—in ways that get away from the large-scale commercial monoculture of the past.”
The company has not given upon Allanblackia, despite the halting pace of progress.
“We are exploring the best options to use Allanblackia in commercial products on the market because we believe in the ‘story of Africa,’ we believe in it in terms of the benefits this can have for the local people,” said Rob Diks, senior technology manager for oils and fats at Unilever. “We believe it is aligning with the objectives we have under the sustainable living plan. But how long does it take? I don’t know.”
Unilever launched a margarine containing the oil in Sweden last year. (Margarine is Unilever’s main focus for Allanblackia, but the company is also investigating its potential as an alternative dairy product.) The margarine flopped, although Diks cannot pinpoint why—perhaps a lack of effective messaging. But Unilever plans another product launch, perhaps at the end of next year, and continues to buy the oil from about 5,000 farmers in Tanzania. “What Unilever has been doing these last few years is to develop a supply chain even though there was no market yet,” said Diks.
Diks said the company has learned the importance of first identifying a market for such products as it develops the raw material supply. “If we can’t commercialize a product, there’s no future,” he said.
Allanblackia is not going to replace palm oil for Unilever, though. According to Diks, palm oil is too important a crop—because it’s a key food industry ingredient, and because it is more productive in terms of fat yield per tree than other oil-producing crops. He pointed out that global production of palm oil is 66 tons a year, while only 100 tons of Allanblackia oil is currently available annually. Diks said what’s needed is a change in industry practices, which Unilever has been supporting: the preservation of peat lands, for instance, and no logging of forests to make way for palm oil plantations.
What Unilever may be doing with Allanblackia, though, is paving a path for other companies to follow.
“I believe a lot of companies worldwide have learned lessons about palm oil and how not to do things,” said Jamnadass. “Perhaps this can be an opportunity to practice different approaches.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistated Unilever's production of palm oil. Sixty-six tons of palm oil are produced globally from all sources.