Allanblackia - a species of choice: interview with Pauline Buffle

19 December 2013 | Article

Pauline Buffle is a Programme Officer in the Global Forest and Climate Change Programme. In this interview, she discusses the context and latest developments of the project she manages on Allanblackia, as well as IUCN's role in the project partnership.

1) What is the Allanblackia project and how did the project start?

“The Allanblackia project is funded by the Swiss Secretariat of Economic Affairs (SECO) for the development of a sustainable supply chain of the Allanblackia oil. Allanblackia is a fruit-bearing tree found in Western central tropical forests of Africa. The fruit contains nuts that can be crushed to obtain oil that has similar properties to palm oil. Traditionally, Allanblackia oil is used in soap-making in Ghana but is also used in Tanzania, Nigeria, Cameroon and a few other countries. The Allanblackia project started in 2002 with a public-private partnership called the Novella partnership, involving several members including, ICRAF (the World Agroforesty Centre) IUCN and Unilever to develop a sustainable supply chain of the Allanblackia oil. The project aimed at launching a new export commodity, giving local farmers an alternative agricultural income through environmentally sustainable harvesting methods. Allanblackia is an endemic African forest tree, and local communities have traditionally gone into the forest to collect the fallen fruits in order to harvest the seeds. However, Unilever realized that wild harvesting would not meet commercial demands in terms of volume–so they decided to domesticate the tree in agroforesty systems following sustainable, social and ecological standards in order to increase the volume of Allanblackia production.”

2) Will Allanblackia replace palm oil?

“Allanblackia oil is not meant to replace palm oil. Unilever has stressed that they will not grow the tree out of its endemic areas. Unilever also does not want Allanblackia to be based on unsustainable monoculture agricultural model but instead based on sustainable agroforestry schemes and maybe sustainable big plantations in the future.For example in Ghana, Allanblackia seedlings are most often combined with cacao trees and research is showing that this combination of crops has very good economical and environmental potential. Some farmers incorporate Allanblackia with other trees such as plantain, palm oil, Rauvolvia vomitoria a plant used as shade tree and/or for medicinal purposes, and many other species.”

3) How long does the wild tree grow? When can you harvest the fruits?

“In the wild, the Allanblackia tree starts fruiting after 12 years. However domesticated trees start fruiting after 7 years. FORM International has assessed that the peak of tree yield is reached around 20-30 years, which remains the same until the tree is 40 years old. So an Allanblackia tree is an investment which will give returns for a long time.”

4) How is Allanblackia oil different from palm oil?

“Allanblackia oil consists almost entirely of stearic and oleic acids and has a precise melting point of 34 Degrees Celsius. Hence, Allanblackia oil will melt easily once swallowed and ingested but will remain solid at room temperature. It has excellent properties for spreads and potentially also for chocolate. In addition to its high melting point, Allanblackia oil does not have the deep red colour of palm oil. Allanblackia oil can therefore be much more easily incorporated - without requiring the costly processing of eliminating colour - into beauty products and food, such as soap and margarine. It has a mild taste, so it makes a good all-purpose oil.”

5) Who are the partners in this project? What is the role of IUCN in this partnership?

“This Allanblackia project is mainly focused in Ghana. We have TechnoServe (TNS), the Institute for Cultural Affairs (ICA of Ghana), UEBT who set up the standard for a sustainable supply chain and FORM International helping us with the forestry aspects. At the global level, we have the Novella partnership (private-public partnership) composed of the World Agroforestry Centre of Research (ICRAF), Unilever, IUCN, UEBT, FORM international and the River State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA) in Nigeria. Our role in IUCN is to ensure that the supply chain is set up in a sustainable way. We are for example, involved in some of the domestication work such as nursery development, as part of research into the potential of Allanblackia as a species of choice for Forest Landscape Restoration, or in the monitoring of the trees. In general we support a lot of the activities with the communities but also work closely with the international partners to keep sustainability high on the agenda."

6) What are the future plans for this project?

“After a first phase of wild harvesting, we are now in the “domestication phase” which is ending soon. We are looking into the possibility of developing a third phase. Meanwhile, the Novella Partnership is still investing in the development of the domestication and supply chain of Allanblackia. For the moment, further research on domestication of Allanblackia trees and wild harvesting of nuts will continue until the necessary volumes are met. At the same time, we are monitoring interests and potential entry points within the local, national, regional and international markets.”