Primrose Hill business chief on campaign to make African superfood baobab famous

Baobab trees at sunset

Baobab trees at sunset - Credit: Archant

Andrew Hunt was flying high in the advertising industry when he hit a mental brick wall.

Andrew Hunt and his Make Baobab Famous campaign

Andrew Hunt and his Make Baobab Famous campaign - Credit: Archant

Days spent plugging frozen ready meals and nasal decongestants left him with an existential crisis and clinical depression at the age of just 25.

“I invested all my energy promoting products I didn’t care about,” says Hunt, who was raised in Primrose Hill and excelled academically at The Hall School Hampstead before snagging a first at university.

“I started questioning myself and my purpose on earth. What started as a malaise spiralled quickly into a nervous breakdown. No-one who met me before or since can believe it.

“As an ambitious high-achiever I couldn’t believe it myself. I lost my sense of direction and had a complete sense of worthlessness. I was thinking around the clock of killing myself.”

A woman with baobab. Picture: Nana Kofi Acquah

A woman with baobab. Picture: Nana Kofi Acquah - Credit: Archant

In desperation, Hunt tried anti-depressants, yoga and acupuncture, but nothing made a difference until a family friend suggested he volunteer his marketing skills for a project in The Gambia.

“I had never been to Africa and had a lot of negative ideas. When I googled it, it sounded like this deserted town full of scary people.”

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Now 38, he’s eternally grateful that his family press-ganged him onto the flight.

“I arrived clinically depressed, certain my life was over. It could have gone either way but after three weeks, I came back to life. It was a little miracle.”

He ascribes the turnaround to the impact of bright sunshine every day, and the emotional warmth of the community.

“In London even somewhere like Primrose Hill you live a pod-like existence, people can get alienated. In Africa all the kids came running up tugging on my leg singing and asking to play football. Instead of feeling useless I realised I had skills.”

Hunt spent four years in Africa helping farmers to plan and produce crops at the right time to hit the market, then buying them and selling them to hotels and restaurants.

“The satisfaction of seeing a rural farmer able to build an extra room so the whole family doesn’t have to sleep in one bed and can send all the children to school felt really good.

“I had never done anything this meaningful for other people before.”

Hunt also observed what he calls the failure of aid projects in Africa – where international cash is often offered for timebound agricultural projects.

“Large numbers of women are given seed to grow some cash crop which a highly paid consultant has said is the next big thing, but they can’t actually sell the product because there is no market for it. When the project expires after three or seven years they uproot the crops and go back to traditional subsistence.”

Upon his return, Hunt co-founded Aduna; an Africa inspired health and beauty brand and social business on his kitchen table in Chalcot Square.

“At the core of the business is a social mission to create demand for under-utilised natural products from small producers in Africa,” he said.

The debut campaign “Make Baobab Famous” aims to build a market in the west for a fruit he calls “an African superfood”.

“If there was demand, the market has the potential to be worth $1billion. We estimate there are 10million households in rural Africa who can supply this fruit from an existing crop that currently goes mainly to waste to a health food industry that is going to be worth a trillion dollars.”

“It’s one of the most nutrient dense super foods on the planet, that ticks all the boxes. High in vitamin C, rich in oil, high in antioxidants the fruit contains 25g of natural sugar but 50 per cent fibre so it is low GI, gluten free, and as a prehistoric species can be eaten on the paleo diet.”

The dried fruit pulp converts into a citrusy, sweet and tangy sherbert powder that can be stirred into smoothies, added to your Nutribullet or put in an energy bar.

Good for skin health, it is also used in beauty products. Because baobab isn’t a staple food in Africa, the current crop is more than can be eaten by the locals.

“It’s the equivalent of having four apple trees in your garden producing so many apples your family can’t eat them all. At the moment 60 tonnes of babobab are consumed domestically, 60 exported, and 20,000 goes to waste.”

After personally pitching to Richard Branson’s Virgin entrepreneurship scheme, Hunt won £100,000 for a marketing campaign. He also persuaded opinion setters like neighbour and International Vogue editor Suzy Menkes, and clean eating guru Melissa Hemsley of the fruit’s benefits.

Baobab is now on sale in Wholefoods and Holland and Barrett under the Aduna label and Hunt has identified similar species with health benefits such as the Moringa leaf and Super-Cacao which he aims to create demand for and connect small producers with a global market.

“With a foot on both continents we are able to understand the opportunities and have the knowledge of the market to help.

“In the process we will change perceptions of this badly misrepresented place whose vibrancy and positivity has breathed life back into me.”