How a South African Village Turned an Alien Tree Into Superfood Coffee

In Calvinia, South Africa, a crowd of about 40 people is waiting to sell mesquite seedpods to Brandt Coetzee, the creator of Manna Brew, a caffeine-free coffee substitute made from roasted beans. The self-styled “superfood espresso” offers health benefits and contributes to the eradication of an alien tree species that is infesting the arid Northern Cape. Collecting the seeds before they are allowed to germinate saves billions of litres of groundwater every year.

The 15cm-long pods, some yellow and some purple, depending on the subspecies of mesquite, are stuffed into flour and fertiliser sacks and ferried here on various wheeled vehicles. Coetzee only buys clean, dry pods, and a few in the queue are sorting their stashes. Others smoke or snooze while they wait for the steel doors to open.

Hans Gouws, a chipper 73-year-old in a luminous green hat, has brought three sacks this morning. He and Gert Smit, 66, made the hour-long walk to the warehouse together. While both receive government pensions of 2,090 South African rand ($110) every month, the extra cash they earn from collecting seedpods helps them to support their grandkids. Last week, Gouws made about 250 rand ($13) every day from the seedpods, and he’s hoping for the same again today.

At 8:30am, the warehouse doors rumble open, and the air is abuzz with noise and activity. The sacks of pods are emptied into plastic crates, where they undergo a quality check. Jan Jochims, 43, watches intently as his stash is weighed. He lives off the money the government pays for his children every month. He receives 510 rand ($27) in government grants for each of his four children, and his wife earns a further 920 rand ($49) every month for working as an orange packer two days a week. His sack of mesquite pods weighs 17.6kg (39 pounds), and he smiles as he’s handed 88 rand ($5) in cash.

Once the pods have been paid for, the details of each transaction are painstakingly recorded by hand. Coetzee has employed 12 locals to manage this process, paying them each 300 rand ($16) per day – twice the going rate in Calvinia – for their efforts. They work quickly and enthusiastically, with Willem Dewee proudly showing Al Jazeera his biceps, and Attie Koopman, 53, taking a break from sweeping the floor for a chat.

The honey mesquite shrub, Prosopis glandulosa, was introduced to the Northern Cape in the late 1800s and its sweet seedpods were viewed as excellent fodder for sheep and goats in the drought-stricken region. However, the animals did not digest the seeds, and the trees grew quickly and took over. Today, approximately eight million hectares of the Northern Cape are infested with mesquite. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) explained that Prosopis glandulosa forms impenetrable thickets that compete strongly with native species for available soil water, suppress grass growth, and may reduce understory species diversity. Other species on the list include the anopheles mosquito, the vector for malaria.

Brandt Coetzee, a third-generation entrepreneur, saw an opportunity in the piles of dead trees and led research into its possible uses. Working with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), he put together a lengthy document of options. While Coetzee had gone into the project with dreams of using the trees for firewood or charcoal, he now set his sights on a higher goal. Mesquite trees have very hard wood that’s similar to Rhodesian teak, and he spent the next three years setting up a woodworking factory in Prieska. At its peak, he had 30 permanent employees and exported furniture to the US and other markets. The dramatic strengthening of the rand under President Thabo Mbeki led Coetzee to close the factory in 2004 because exports were no longer profitable.

Coetzee realized that cutting and poisoning the trees wasn’t the best way of controlling the infestation. The seeds from the regrowth replanted through animals’ droppings and the spread is now totally out of control. Collecting the seedpods, he realised, was a much cheaper and more effective way of dealing with the problem. In 2005, Coetzee launched Manna Blood Sugar Support capsules, a “natural way to support healthy blood sugar levels” targeted at Type 2 diabetics and those struggling with weight or cholesterol issues. The product has done extremely well in South Africa, selling approximately 120,000 jars a year, and it has also received the green light from two independent, peer-reviewed scientific papers. A 2013 study that tested the product on rats found that P glandulosa was cardioprotective, infarct sparing, and anti-hypertensive without affecting the body weight or intraperitoneal fat depots of the animals.

Manna Brew, a coffee-based company, has shifted its focus from natural products to mesquite, a plant that is naturally caffeine-free and tastes similar to coffee. The company’s main drivers include job creation and water conservation, and it is currently exporting about one tonne of mesquite pods a month to South Africa, Australia, the UAE, and the US. The company is also developing coffee pods, which can be brewed in various coffeemakers and on-the-go.

The mesquite pods are naturally caffeine-free, but they do not contain caffeine and have a caramel aftertaste. The drink is great on its own but can also be paired with milk and milk substitutes. The company is gaining traction in South Africa, selling about one tonne a month in restaurants, cafes, and retail shelves. They are also being exported to Australia, the UAE, and the US.

Coetzee is concerned about competition as they do not have any patents, so they are still in the process of registering the mesquite pods as a novel food. He is not worried about competition as they do not have any patents, but they are still in the process of registering the mesquite pods as a novel food.

During the harvest, 660 people sold a total of 56 tonnes of seedpods to Coetzee, injecting about 350,000 rand ($18,650) into the local economy. This is a much-needed boost for the Northern Cape province, which is the third-poorest in the country and the least developed. The Northern Cape has more people living in informal dwellings (12.1%) and fewer children attending pre-primary school (43.3%) than anywhere else in the country.

Coetzee acknowledges the challenges and limitations of Manna Brew’s impact, but he dreams of a better future for the province. He plans to buy 100 tonnes of mesquite pods next year at a price of six rand ($0.32) a kilo and hopes to buy 1,000 tonnes at 10 rand ($0.53) a kilo in ten years. If successful, the company could work with towns across the region and control the mesquite problem.

For now, Coetzee must focus on making and selling Manna Brew, one cup at a time.

Read More @ Aljazeera

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