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close this bookThe Courier N° 127 May - June 1991- Dossier 'New' ACP Export Products - Country Reports Cape Verde - Namibia (EC Courier, 1991, 104 p.)
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Bissap - health tea and natural colouring

by Monique Johanna VAN MEEL

Health tea made from Hibiscus sabdariffa is served all day and every day all over West Africa. This refreshing and invigorating drink, the colour of vin rosshould be arriving on the European market soon. Traditionally called bissap, Guinean sorrel, karkadr Abyssinian tea, it is made from Hibiscus sabdariffa - which has many a surprise in store...

In Australia and Africa since 4000 BC

Where does the plant come from? Africa or India probably, although no-one knows for certain, for Hibiscus sabdariffa goes back to 4000 BC, when it was common almost all over the tropics and the sub-tropics in both northern and southern hemispheres, from Sudan to Australia, via India, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Pakistan, Florida, Mexico, Brazil, the Caribbean and Guyana.

Italian soldiers, who took infusions of the red calyxes of Hibiscus sabdariffa to prevent infection after drinking polluted water during the war in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1936, took a fancy to this (Abyssinian or health) tea and brought it to Europe.

Health tea or pink tea, as it is sometimes called, is very popular with Moslems too and they drink it a lot during Ramadan.

Therapeutic properties

As Mr Diop, Director-General of the Institute of Food Technology, says, ‘the tradition of using this plant in West Africa goes back about a century’. People from Senegal to Nigeria used to grow bissap and make rope from the fibres and fishermen on the Rivers Senegal and Niger made this rope into huge nets which completely blocked the river.

The leaves make vegetables and the juice extracted after cooking can be put on cuts and wounds or taken as a diuretic and urinary antiseptic. Oil from the seeds is often used as a tonic and diuretic and the roots as laxatives and purgatives. The fleshy calyx can be put into tarts and puddings and makes excellent jam, jelly (akin to red currant jelly) and coulis to put on cakes and in vanilla sorbet.

The plant has proven therapeutic qualities. It is an antispasmodic and a mild-hypotensive, it cures worms and fights germs efficiently and, let us not forget, it affects the speed of alcohol absorption and helps combat cancer.

Two types - red calyx and green calyx

The green one, which is used in rice and millet dishes, helps the digestion and combats fatigue. The red one is widely used in the pharmacopoeia. The plant is an annual one, which grows a metre high and has a strong stem and a calyx which are either both green or both red. It is rich in calcium, phosphorus, iron and vitamin C.

A 100% natural colouring

The flowers are harvested about three weeks after they open and yields of up to 17 tonnes per hectare of young shoots, 6300 kg of fresh calyxes and 800 kg of dry calyxes can be expected.

Then comes the lengthy process of turning the fresh calyxes into concentrate. This is a job reserved for the women, who cut the base, take off the capsule, separate the calyxes and rinse them to remove all the impurities, especially sand. The calyxes are then left to macerate before being put through a centrifugal extractor and turned into a thick, bright red, sharp, strong-smelling liquid.

The pulp is then cooked with its weight in sugar to produce a dark red, slightly acid marmalade with very little aroma. Jelly is made in the same way. The pigment dissolves easily in water or alcohol and can be used to give a high quality, natural colour to syrups and liqueurs.

Senegal as a bissap exporter

Senegal has recently gone into marketing bissap concentrate and syrup. These products, which are made by well-tried methods in the laboratory of the Institute of Food Technology in Dakar, have all the flavour and aroma of the plant as well as its bright red colouring.

The ITA supplies more than 8000 litres of concentrate, the equivalent of 15 t of fresh calyxes, to SOCAS (the Skotane food company or the Baobab farm and dairy, as it is more properly called). This is the most modern farm in the whole of West Africa and it provides more than 100 litres of bissap juice per day for Dakar alone. It takes 1.5 1 of concentrate to make 1001 of juice. Bissap is packaged by the same machines which put a million litres of fresh milk into cartons for distribution throughout Senegal every year.

SOCAS is anxious to produce more than its annual 4200 t of tomato concentrate at the Savoigne plant in northern Senegal and is also hoping to use the machinery there to prepare bissap concentrate and syrup.

More than 30 t of red calyxes are exported to Italy, Switzerland and Germany and the demand is in fact far higher than that, as these countries use a lot of the natural colouring in their food and agriculture industries and in confectionery and pharmaceuticals. One German laboratory has just come up with a 100% natural pink sweet made of gum arabic and Hibiscus sabdariffa. .

There is no doubt that bissap will be joining the raw materials market, which will mean that the countries which produce it can do more to develop the plant which could well turn the world of synthetics over to natural products.