Why you should care

Because there’s money to be made from agricultural waste.

Cashews are Africa’s most beloved cash crop — well, after cocoa — but they leave a trail of heartbreak too. The continent produces 57 percent of the world’s favorite kidney-shaped snack, but 90 percent of the crop is exported raw and processed elsewhere, creating jobs and wealth that should be staying in Africa. Worse still, something else was squandered, at least until recently — the so-called cashew apple, which was thrown away or left to rot as a by-product of the harvest.

But when life gives you lemons, it’s time to make lemonade. Or, in the case of Benin on Africa’s west coast, a new beverage. The world’s largest cashew exporter now is finding a way to turn waste into wealth. In January 2016, TechnoServe, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that has a presence in 29 African nations, began partnering with four local entrepreneurs to squeeze cashew apples and produce a tangy juice drink called Sweet Benin.

But pickers have to work fast: Cashew apples ferment and become utterly useless within 24 hours of harvesting.

BeninCajù — caju means cashew in Portuguese — is a five-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in conjunction with Catholic Relief Services. According to TechnoServe, the new value chain created from the formerly scorned extremity of the cashew tree potentially could increase the country’s gross domestic product by as much as 1.5 percent. “There is a 40 percent to 50 percent value addition from the cashew apple,” says James Obarowski, head of TechnoServe’s Benin office and the program manager. “About 100,000 tons of it are thrown away [annually], which is [worth] about $170 million.”

The inspiration for Sweet Benin arose from the organization’s observations in the field and from playbooks in South America and South Asia. In Brazil, where the cashew originated, 8 percent of harvested apples are used to produce juice. In India, the world’s second-largest exporter, no less a personage than Prime Minister Narendra Modi challenged the cashew industry to find ways to make good use of the apples. In 2015, Pepsi began using cashew juice in a mixed fruit drink sold in India under the Tropicana label, replacing more expensive and familiar juices like apple and pineapple. Goa state on India’s west coast already has a lucrative use for the pulp: distilling it into a brandy called feni.

Previously, the apples served only as an indicator of ripeness: When they turned bright red or yellow in late September and again in early January, it was time to pick the so-called nuts hanging from the bottom of the apples. (Technically, the “apples” are fibrous stems of the cashew tree; the “nuts” are actually seeds encased in a double-hulled shell.)

In Benin, TechnoServe’s entrepreneurial partners have built four processing plants that pay farmers approximately 5 cents per kilogram of cashew apples, which amounts to about $5 per bag. But pickers have to work fast: Cashew apples ferment and become utterly useless within 24 hours of harvesting. (If the nut is separated from the apple, that time is slashed to just six hours.) At the processing plants, which employs 36 full-time staffers, including 30 women, cashew apples are washed and diced before the juice is extracted by squeezing the chunks in a tube. Additional production steps include filtering out the tannins that make the pulp acrid, heating, homogenization, pasteurization and bottling.

In terms of marketing, the entire project initially was up against what charitably could be called consumer resistance: A Benin superstition holds that drinking the juice of the cashew apple is fatal. “We had to get ads on TV and radio to show the people that it was safe to drink,” says Obarowski. Eventually, Lazare Sehoueto, the Benin minister of industry, trade and handicrafts, drank Sweet Benin on national television to put an end to the morbid speculation.

In fact, the juice helps burn fat and is good for overall health, claims Festus Okunlola, a researcher with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria. “Cashew apple is a good source of magnesium, which plays a vital role in the development of bones, muscles, tissues and organs,” says Okunlola. He also notes the juice contains high amounts of vitamin C, low amounts of sugar and no cholesterol, which makes the product “safe for diabetic patients and even lowers the risk of Type 2 diabetes.”

Things have gone so smoothly that Sweet Benin plans to increase production next year by 500 percent and recruit six more entrepreneurs to process the juice.

Across Africa, countries seem to be embracing the potential that the cashew tree offers, again taking a cue from Brazil, the largest consumer of cashew-related products. Snacks like kuli kuli (cashew cake), cashew plum and cashew honey are produced by women running small-scale businesses in Kogi and Kwara states of Nigeria, where Olam, the Singapore-backed agri-processing conglomerate, began operations procuring and exporting raw cashews back in 1989.

As Africans and their beloved cashew rehash their commitment vows, the value is clear to see.

* Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of full-time employees at the cashew apple processing plants.

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