Interview with Gus Le Breton
Explore the evolution of B’Ayoba’s ethical and sustainable baobab business through its CEO's lens, discover his personal motivations behind the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT), and learn why he is working to educate people about African biodiversity.
B’Ayoba is a leading producer of baobab products, ethically and sustainably harvested in partnership with rural producer communities around Zimbabwe. B’Ayoba’s baobab is fully organically certified and meets the highest international quality standards.
Gus Le Breton is committed to protecting Africa’s abundant botanical resources while promoting and securing economic growth and development across the continent. With a 25-year track record in ethical, biodiversity-friendly natural products-related businesses under his belt, he is recognised internationally as a leading expert in the development of practical and effective Access and Benefit-Sharing mechanisms around the commercial use of biodiversity. Gus currently serves as CEO of B’Ayoba, African Plant Hunter, Katavi Botanicals, and Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe.
Hi Gus! B’Ayoba produces baobab products which are ethically and sustainably harvested in Zimbabwe. Share some insights into your business’s road to establishing itself as one of the leading baobab producers in the industry.
Well, I think the first thing to say is that when we started this business in 2012, we were one of the very first players in the baobab sector. I had been involved with baobab for quite a long time from my days working in PhytoTrade, but I had not actually gotten my hands dirty in terms of production and processing. And not many people had because it was still a very new product.
We really had to learn from scratch, and our biggest challenge was quality—getting reliability and consistency of quality. There was no machinery; no one produced off-the-shelf baobab processing equipment, so we had to design the production process ourselves from scratch and figure out what works and what doesn’t work. In terms of trial and error, we made a lot of errors before we finally figured it out. I’d say it probably took us about four years before we were able to get a good quality product absolutely every time.
The ethical and sustainability side of things has also been a learning curve for us. I mean, that was always the plan, of course. But in terms of measuring it and figuring out how to quantify and demonstrate it to other people, that’s also been a big learning curve. That’s the story behind our Union for Ethical BuyerTrade (UEBT) membership and the FairWild certification. We use this standard that was set up by the FairWild Foundation—which is linked to WWF—and measures both the ecological sustainability and the social, fair-trade aspect of our business. It’s a very complicated standard, but it’s very effective in measuring these elements, so it’s played a big part for us.
How has the demand for baobab shifted over the years? What challenges and opportunities do you foresee in the future?
It’s shifted in multiple ways. Firstly, the demand has grown. When we started, baobab was little-known in the market, so the demand was very minimal. It’s now grown significantly, and baobab’s profile has been well-established. I think a lot of consumers have heard of it, they know what it is, even if they don’t necessarily know what it tastes like or what it does.
In the early days, the demand was really driven by the fact that it was a novel food, it was African, and it had a high vitamin C content. But now it’s got much more nuance. Now, food manufacturers want it for its specific functional health properties, especially around gut health. The high fibre content of baobab and the benefits for the intestinal microbiome—the prebiotic effects—are well-documented. Also, in terms of regulating and managing the prevention of diabetes and blood sugar levels, it’s a very useful ingredient to have.
Of course, one big selling point for baobab is the fact that it tastes nice, which is quite rare for a superfood. That’s also been something that consumers haven’t really known and are just starting to see. So now the demand is quite significant globally, particularly in North America and Europe. It hasn’t really evolved yet or taken off much in Asia, but I know that that’s just a matter of time. Baobab’s been consumed in Africa for hundreds of years and is indeed a staple food for many people all across the African continent.
On B’Ayoba’s website it says “From seedlings in the soil to oil in a bottle, our supply chain is fully vertically integrated.” Tell us more.
B’Ayoba is one of the few companies that really is—and we can genuinely claim that—functioning at the grassroots level. We work directly with primary producers. They harvest the product; they sell it to us. We also have processing centres out in rural areas where we employ harvesters. We have a very close relationship with our harvesters—we’ve got about four-and-a-half thousand of them on the books that are organically certified, and some of them are also FairWild certified.
From there, we go all the way up. We’ve got our factory where we’re processing the product, and we’re also present in markets. We currently hold our stock in two locations, one in Rotterdam [the Netherlands] and the other in Long Beach in California for the North American market, and we’re selling directly from there. Ultimately, we go the whole way—from the grassroots production right through to the end consumer.
COVID-19 is impacting the food supply chain across the globe. Has it affected your business? If yes, how?
Ja, it’s affecting us. Certainly, there’s been a significant and obvious spike in demand for baobab, which has been a wonderful thing because people are looking for healthier foods. Particularly ones that are associated with immune-boosting, which baobab certainly is. But at the same time, the logistics of moving the product has been quite challenging during COVID-19. We’re not sure if we’re going to be able to commit to a full production season this year because we just don’t know if we can get the product out. We hope we can, but Zimbabwe is a landlocked country, so we’re entirely dependent on other countries around us to allow our product to pass through them. At the moment, the South African border is closed, the Mozambican border is closed. So we can’t get product out of Zimbabwe right now, but we are hoping that we’ll be able to move it very soon.
In the long-term, my expectation with COVID-19 is that it’s going to lead to a rebooting of our global consumption system. And one of the positive outcomes of that will be that people will actively look for products that promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable biodiversity use. A very quick example of the direct link between biodiversity and COVID-19 is that bats transmitting diseases to humans comes about when bats and humans are in close contact, which happens because bats lose their natural habitat. Baobab trees are not only a well-known habitat for bats but are also pollinated by bats. So the more baobab trees there are, the more homes there are for bats and the less likely it is that there’s going to be any disease transmission from bats to humans.
You helped establish the Geneva-based Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT) and formerly served as the President on the board. Why did you choose to start this initiative? In what ways has UEBT contributed to the adoption of more ethical sourcing practices in the global cosmetics and food industries since its founding?
Indeed, I was very involved in the UEBT and was the first President of the Union for Ethical BioTrade board back in 2006 (until 2010 when I resigned). The background story behind the UEBT is that I could see that there were lots of companies out there that were doing their absolute utmost to comply with the highest ethical standards in terms of both environmental sustainability from a biodiversity point of view and ethical sustainability. But there was no way for them to differentiate themselves from other companies that weren’t necessarily behaving quite so ethically. So for me, the idea or the rationale behind the Union for Ethical BioTrade was to set up a standard which could then be independently assessed, inspected and verified to show buyers that this is a company that takes its responsibility seriously.
Of course, it’s evolved a lot since then. The whole ABS arena has really grown and is now, with the Nagoya Protocol, a very big issue. The UEBT team plays a critical role in interpreting the protocol and helping to explain it to both buyers and producers from source countries, and I think they’re doing a fantastic job. I’m still a member, of course, but I’m no longer involved in any way in the management or administration of the organisation. They do a great job, they don’t need anything from me.
Your most recent venture, African Plant Hunter, explores the current and potential uses of Africa’s botanical resources for the benefit of rural African producers. What knowledge have you collected, and how are you sharing this information with the rest of the world?
The African Plant Hunter is really about me giving back to African biodiversity, which has been the centre of my whole life to date. I’ve learned and benefited a lot from working with African plant biodiversity, and I still feel to this day that it is very under-appreciated in the rest of the world. It always astounds me how little the rest of the world knows about African biodiversity—particularly plant biodiversity—and what an opportunity that is. So for me, African Plant Hunter is really just about making little videos about African plants to show and educate people. If it can lead to opportunities that benefit African plant biodiversity, benefit the rural people that live with and look after that plant biodiversity, that is a win-win. But if, through my enthusiasm and my passion for African plant biodiversity, I’m just imparting a little bit of knowledge to a few other people, for me that’s a job done, and anything on top of that would be a wonderful bonus.