Story | 17 Mar, 2017

Allanblackia oil: from a wild-harvested seed to your morning toast

The fruits of the Allanblackia, a tree considered vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, are harvested in the tropical rain belt of Africa – from Guinea in the west through to Tanzania in the east. Oil from the seeds has been extracted for generations and used for cooking or soap making, but a new commercial application of the oil might be the key to ensuring Allanblackia’s future.   

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Photo: IUCN / Pauline Buffle

Around the year 2000, the global consumer goods company, Unilever, began to realise the great potential of Allanblackia seeds as a new source of oil that could be used in their products. They set out to purchase seeds in a socially and environmentally conscious manner. Unilever made a specific commitment to purchase oil from seeds grown by smallholders and sought partners to enable the integrity of the value chains. In 2002, the Allanblackia Partnership (formerly Novella) was set up to ensure sustainable production of the oil. The public-private partnership, composed of Unilever, the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the Union for Ethical Bio Trade (UEBT), FORM International, Novel Development, RSSSDA and IUCN has been working together on this project for more than ten years.

The commitment of all partners in the Allanblackia Partnership is to make progress in the development of this new crop based on the following key guidelines:

  • Delivery of social benefits and improving the livelihoods of households in African communities, and
  • Conserving biodiversity by maintaining wild trees in the forest and through planting trees in deforested and degraded areas (Forest Landscape Restoration).

Since Allanblackia seeds had always been harvested in the wild and used locally, a supply chain for export had to be created. To support Unilever’s commitment and financial investment, the other Allanblackia partners contributed through concrete research on the tree’s domestication, training on wild harvesting and the establishment of collection sites. With funding from the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs, IUCN and UEBT have developed a sustainability standard, and a verification system to ensure a sustainable supply chain. IUCN has also worked to improve the business skills of the farmers to encourage their active participation in the market. IUCN also supports small holder business models including intercropping Allanblackia with cocoa to promote it as a species of choice for landscape restoration.

After a decade of work, Allanblackia can finally be found on shelves in the European market (Swedish) as a spreadable margarine. It’s a start. Consuming Allanblackia can provide an opportunity to contribute to the long-term development and alleviation of poverty in the rural communities where it grows. Its oil has the potential to become a valuable commodity which can provide a new and sustainable source of additional income for local communities. If these communities can scale-up its production in a sustainable way, the benefits to local residents and the environment can increase manifold.

Imagine all these benefits from something as seemingly simple as the margarine spread on your morning toast.